Having the local premiere of The Twentieth-Century Way produced around the time of the San Diego LGBT Pride Parade and Festival makes perfect sense. Ion Theatre’s Off-the-Radar rendition is evidence of how much the laws involving homosexuality changed since 1914. Although there are still a lot of hateful individuals in society, intolerance was significantly worse during that particular time period. Tom Jacobson’s script depicts in depth how poorly gay men were treated under the judicial system.
Opening in Los Angeles, two actors, Brown (Colton Iverson) and Warren (Richard Johnson) are auditioning for a movie. As a way to keep themselves entertained, they “pretend” to cooperate with the police. In their possibly imaginary tale, the troupe members pose as gay men in different bathhouses and restrooms in the City of Angels. The duo agrees to seduce and entrap unsuspecting gentlemen.
Jacobson’s script starts out realistically enough with the thespians discussing the craft of acting. After they begin to portray different characters, ranging from police officers to foreigners, the plot turns into a psychologically complex narrative. In later sequences, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out whether the wait for the audition is continuing, or if their fantasy is, in fact, a reality.
Iverson and Johnson take part in a balancing act by switching back and forth between multiple personas. The stars get under the audiences’ skin as the characters possibly descent into madness.
Each star has witty timing, in particular during their early interactions. Conversations about theatre and stage experience are enjoyably humorous.
Ion’s founder/executive artistic director, Claudio Raygoza, directs and designs the drama on the Elaine Lipinsky stage. He transforms an audition room into a mini Los Angeles where the space becomes a newspaper office, bar and prison in an instant.
His costumes, in particular, expand the scope of the story. Change of clothes allows the fictional artists to believably inhabit the numerous roles.
The Twentieth-Century Way makes a big statement about how excessive certain performers can be in order to stand out from the crowd. Brown and Warren are equally passionate about the stage, and a battle of wills grows between them. Whether the players are fighting for a part or for self satisfaction is not revealed until the very end.
Another reoccurring message involves the unfair treatment of gay men, in the not so distant past. It was a time when the so-called “criminal” was actually a victim. Theatregoers feel compassion for the arrested “degenerates,” because they are not a threat to others or society.
While there is male nudity in the last couple of minutes, the playwright and Raygoza do not use it to titillate the viewers. Instead, the use of skin showcases how much Brown and Warren changed during the 85-minute running time.
Jacobson’s only line that is a little too preachy is one that Brown utters shortly before the conclusion. For a brief instant, the message about obsessive acting becomes too obvious.
Though the dialogue is temporarily heavy handed, the final moments are subtle. Viewers should pay close attention to the last exchanges to fully appreciate a subversive final twist. This is not really a spoiler, because many might not realize how smart Jacobson’s concluding exchange is, unless they have read the program beforehand.
Raygoza’s version is not the typical production one associates with the summer, which makes the night all the more satisfying. What results is an intelligent and absorbing think piece for mature viewers. Buy tickets before July 24.