Okay, so this isn't a perfect production. There's too much pushing for volume and laughs in the opening minutes, as if Bobbie wants to make sure that ticket-buyers understand they're watching a farce. The script, adapted by farce specialist Ken Ludwig, is untidy in places and ends so abruptly that it leaves one with a curious "Huh -- is that it?" feeling. But these lapses can't all be blamed on Ludwig, since he worked from a Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play that may scroll much better in memory than it does on paper. (For the record, Hecht and MacArthur were themselves working from a Charles Bruce Milholland piece called The Napoleon of Broadway.)
The story that Ludwig has streamlined -- an appropriate verb for the sleek, fast-moving train on which the action takes place -- involves Oscar Jaffe (Baldwin) and Lily Garland (Heche), a couple of show business monsters. These two became lovers after he molded her into a Main Stem star but their egos have since clashed like tectonic plates; she's gone on to Hollywood stardom while he's fallen on hard times after a string of Garland-less flops. But Jaffe will be back on Easy Street if he can finagle her into signing another contract with him and not with his ex-partner, Max Jacobs (Stephen DeRosa). Aiding him in his manipulative endeavor during the train raide are two fast-talking factotums inured to Jaffe's autocratic ways, Ida Webb (Halston) and Owen O'Malley (Butler). Attempting to help Lily but only cramping her flamboyant style is her manager/supposed fiancé, George Smith (Ryan Shively).
The fun of Twentieth Century is watching the two focal characters feud, fuss, fight, and fondle while the members of their long-suffering entourages try to make nice all around. Also on hand is a religious wacko who's plastering "Repent for the time is at hand" stickers throughout the train's cars. He claims to be a millionaire executive with the money to back Jaffe's hoped-for project for Garland. Are you ready for this? It's a Passion play in which Garland will be ideally (?) cast as Mary Magdalene. Greasing the whirring wheels of the narrative, Ludwig has tossed in a married doctor taking a holiday with a woman who isn't his wife. This is one of the untidy plot points, since the doc is a would-be playwright with a Joan of Arc manuscript that figures into the plot complications but never pays off comedically.
But that's it for the objections; too much about this Twentieth Century is first rate to keep up the caviling. With the cast loping in William Ivey Long's stunning costumes through John Lee Beatty's sleek, sliding set of parlor car and two adjoining cabins, the blissfully mindless comedy goes down as smoothly as Maker's Mark on the rocks. Maybe the script is mindless because Hecht and MacArthur, newsmen turned dramatists, are having their little joke about show-business mindlessness. Having spent time around both newsrooms and green rooms, they must have noticed that theater people are sometimes too extravagantly sold on themselves and their personal and professional involvements to be good for anything but an outsider's hearty guffaw.
Mindless fun can still be fun, especially if the actors playing it are committed to the chic silliness. In A Child of the Century, Ben Hecht's 1954 autobiography, he writes that he admires "the actor or actress who can remove the mechanics of the play being performed and present me with a brief poem of self." Hecht adds that "of the few actors I have known who had that genius, I admired most Jack Barrymore." (He was speaking of Barrymore's performance in the movie adaptation of Twentieth Century; Hecht himself had been offered the stage role by producer-director George Abbott but nixed the idea.)
Heche, who has Carole Lombard's nose and jaw line and Gloria Swanson's mouth, is all angular movement and actress-y emotion from the moment that she enters in a soigné suit. (She may have honed her occasionally Kate Hepburn-esque delivery while taping Adam's Rib for L.A. Theatre Works not long ago.) Taking the measure of everyone who comes near her, Heche drolly makes it plain that Lily is a woman who regards others only for the time they're willing to devote to her. Both Baldwin and Heche are ardent physical comics here. If anything is lacking in their combined playing, it's the sense that, underneath it all, they're truly and passionately in love with each other. Then again, on screen, Barrymore and Lombard didn't strike that elusive chord either. (Moffat Johnston and Eugenie Leontovitch played the parts in the 1932 stage production.)
Julie Halston has the part that Walter Connelly owned in the film, here a trouser role. Decked out in one of William Ivey Long's feathered hats, she displays the good-natured acerbity that is one the hallmarks of her style. Dan Butler, as the other object of Oscar Jaffe's daily abuse, has a wonderful way of delivering his lines with a bemused smile on his map-of-Ireland face. Meanwhile, several other amusing characterizations keep parading through. (Jim Carnahan and Mele Nagler worked with director Bobbie on the gem-like casting.) Stephen DeRosa plays a member of the Oberammergau acting troupe with guttural gusto and later returns without beard as Max Jacobs. Factoring in Tom Aldredge's long-faced mock gravity as the Bible-thumping Matthew Clarke and Ryan Shively's appropriately pompous George Smith, this Twentieth Century shows that studio lots in '30s Hollywood may have been crowded with estimable character actors but no more so than today's Broadway stages.
It's astonishing how often current headlines add a serendipitous zing to an old chestnut. Oscar Jaffe's plans for a Passion Play to end all Passion plays -- with sand, elephants, and so on -- clicks as an entertaining antidote to the Mel Gibson/Passion of the Christ foofaraw. But, even without that added snap, this is a swell Twentieth Century for the 21st century.