The Twentieth-Century Way
Tom Jacobson's heart-racing two-man show about clandestine gay life in L.A. one hundred years ago returns to New York City.
We tend not to think much of gay life in the United States before the Stonewall Riots of 1969. So audiences may be surprised to learn that as far back as the Woodrow Wilson administration, the practice of "cottaging" (gay men meeting in public lavatories for casual sex) was already widespread. Tom Jacobson's brilliant two-hander, The Twentieth-Century Way, takes on that subject and its fraught relationship to law enforcement. Based on an obscure anecdote from Los Angeles gay history, the play first appeared in New York City as part of the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival. It has now returned in a coproduction between The Theatre @ Boston Court and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Unabashedly experimental without being pretentious, The Twentieth-Century Way is that rare convergence of a great story with a novel form of theatricality.
It's 1914. Two actors enter a bare stage for an audition. Warren (Robert Mammana) is ruggedly handsome and trained in the Delsarte system of emotionally evocative gestures. A devotee of the more modern Stanislavski method, Brown (Will Bradley) is softer and boyish. Both are fast-talking and quick-witted, although Warren is the more aggressive of the two. Their disparate looks and performance styles make them an ideal team for the acting job that Warren really has in mind: luring homosexual men into exposing themselves in public restrooms so they can be arrested for "social vagrancy." The Long Beach Police Department has promised him $15 per arrest (roughly $350 in 2015). What begins as a series of practice improvisations blurs into reality as the deputized actors entrap members of Southern California's secret gay community.
In addition to their roles as Brown and Warren, Bradley and Mammana play every other character. Or is it Brown and Warren playing these parts? The show never really makes this distinction clear. That turns out to be one of the most exciting aspects of the show. Certainly, for many closeted gay men in the early 20th century, this air of mystery and trepidation in meeting fellow travelers would have been a familiar sensation. This show succeeds in re-creating it onstage.
Jacobson's script is clever and self-aware, not as a means to be cute or wink at the audience, but always in service to the story. Director Michael Michetti infuses the production with the right amount of frantic energy to maintain that illusion and keep us on our toes. With the help of Clifton Chadick's protean set and Garry Lennon's adaptable costumes, scenes bleed from one to the next, leaving us in a dreamlike state, trying to catch up with a play that thrillingly remains two steps ahead.
Much of this has to do with the incredibly talented cast. Bradley and Mammana easily jump from character to character, scene to scene, with utmost commitment. Mammana gives his macho tough guy a whiff of sociopathic ambition. Bradley is deceptively nonthreatening, his feigned innocence part of his alluring menace. Their interactions are slyly erotic. Seeing the two opposite each other is like watching an Olympic judo match between opponents of equal strength and agility. Even when Brown and Warren (or is it Bradley and Mammana?) literally strip down to their barest form, we never quite trust that we're not seeing a performance.
The Twentieth-Century Way matches its formal rigor with thought-provoking content. So much about this story from a century ago touches upon our modern lives: The playacting of the incipient gay community lives on in the form of Internet catfishing. Police entrapment has not gone out of fashion in the age of the "War on Terror." Even the perverse financial incentive enjoyed by Warren and Brown echoes the modern practice of using the sale of seized property to subsidize tightened police budgets. The Twentieth-Century Way raises all of these issues without beating you over the head with them, wrapping it all in an immensely enjoyable package.