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Important Hats of the Twentieth Century

Nick Jones offers a brand-new comedy about time-traveling fashionistas.

Carson Elrod and Matthew Saldivar star in Nick Jones' Important Hats of the Twentieth Century, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel for Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

High fashion may seem like a rarified world with little bearing on the existence of 99 percent of Americans, but in Nick Jones' Important Hats of the Twentieth Century, no less than the fate of the universe hangs in the balance when it comes to the unveiling of the fall line. This delightful madcap comedy is now receiving its world premiere with Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center under the crafty direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Broadway's Hand to God). Irreverent and imaginative, Important Hats takes a critical question (Is beauty timeless, or merely a social construct?) and sends it through the ringer.

It's the late 1930s and designer Sam Greevy (Carson Elrod) is at the top of the fashion world, propped up by glowing reviews from his secret boyfriend, critic T.B. Doyle (John Behlmann). Greevy is all about "say something" hats and perfectly tailored dresses, practically unwearable works of art relegated to stars and socialites. He's facing increasingly stiff competition, however, from Paul Roms (Matthew Saldivar), a designer who puts comfort over style with strange new garments like the sweatshirt, sweatpants, and sneakers. Greevy is disgusted. "Fashion is meant to challenge us, to make us strive to have bodies beautiful enough to deserve it," he sermonizes. "If people start embracing clothes that anyone can wear, they'll stop trying to improve themselves. People will stop going to work. Society will crumble."

Little does Greevy know that this decaying republic of the poorly dressed is a reality in America's not-too-distant future: Roms has been using a time-traveling hat developed by scientist Dr. Cromwell (Remy Auberjonois) to teleport to 1998, where he steals items from the closet of Albany teenager Jonathan (Jon Bass). As he does this, mysterious glowing orbs appear above New York City, a sign of the fraying fabric of space and time brought on by the transplanted '90s fashion. We should have suspected that the popularity of JNCO jeans was a sign of the apocalypse.

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In a manner reminiscent of Charles Ludlam's Caprice (albeit more family-friendly), Important Hats sends up the New York fashion world in the form of a live B movie. Jones (who penned last season's appealingly strange Verité) hilariously employs the clichés of Hollywood sci-fi and disaster films, complete with pseudoscientific jargon, a deranged villain, and an epic final battle in which the time-traveling convention really gets a workout. It's unapologetically silly fun, given an appropriately fast-paced and cinematic staging by von Stuelpnagel.

Bathed in Jason Lyon's noir lighting, Timothy R. Mackabee's nifty set features a door on castors reconfigured into seemingly infinite new spaces. A rolling clothes rack is the other major item, keeping us in the realm of fashion while offering space for Jennifer Moeller's impressive array of costumes. Moeller not only gives 1930s realness (muting colors to maintain the play's dark veneer), she also ingeniously blends it with 1990s schlub style as the Roms trend begins to take hold. The costumes circle the stage during the time travel sequences, with the actors removing and replacing items from the rack, leading to seamless transitions.

The nine-person cast portrays no fewer than 34 roles, all of them over-the top. Elrod (one of New York's best character actors) is particularly memorable as the gay southern fashion designer with the panache to sport both a pocket square and a boutonnière. Bass practically foams at the mouth as moody teen Jonathan. Saldivar gives a masterfully dead-eyed performance as our villain. Everyone commits entirely to each beat, quite an accomplishment considering that parts of Jones' script come as inexplicable digressions.

Unfortunately, Jones has a tendency to rely on non sequitur as a punch line. While covering a fashion show, a possibly inebriated radio announcer (Auberjonois) goes on an extended on-air rant about abstract art and his father. The resulting laughter is tepid. The idea of radio coverage of a fashion show is ridiculous enough, but Jones tries to stuff the moment with extra jokes when less is more.

Still, the actors sell the absurdity of each situation and bring us through the shagginess of Jones' script with a minimum of cringe-worthy moments. You'll laugh at the excess of it all, almost as you would at a flamboyant dress worn by Lady Gaga. Few modern plays traffic in such unadulterated flights of fancy, which makes Important Hats a refreshing change of pace.

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