Theatre Review: “Twentieth Century” at the Indianapolis Civic Theatre

Seated LtR - Karla Williams and Matthew Clark.  Standing LtR - Bill Book, Karen Frye, Mark Fishback.  Photo from Indianapolis Civic Theatre.

Last Saturday night I drove to the Marian College campus to see the Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s production of “Twentieth Century,” written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on a play by Charles Bruce Mulholland, in a new adaptation by Ken Ludwig.  Civic’s production was directed by Robert J. Sorbera.

It is an amusing and elegant piece. Leaving the theatre, I heard the young woman behind me say to her companion, “That was hilarious!”  I didn’t find it hilarious, exactly, but I did find it uniquely enjoyable.  It appealed to the historian in me, and the theatre groupie.  It also appealed to the part of me that is intrigued by the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

And there’s just something so romantic, so…full of possibility, about a journey by train in the days before plastic cutlery.

According to the “Entr’acte Facts” by Brent E. Marty in my program, the Twentieth Century Limited was the name of a famous train run by the New York Central Railroad from 1902 to 1967.  It was beautifully appointed, and it ran from New York to Chicago (or vice versa) in only 16 hours.

On this particular journey in the 1930s, a famous Broadway producer is on board, hoping to get the signature of another famous passenger, a film and theatre star, to sign a contract that will keep the banks from foreclosing on his theatre.  Other quirky passengers and staff play into the adventure as well.

Bill Book plays Oscar Jaffe, the debonair and oh-so-creative producer.  He is “the theatrical man, the earth-shaker himself,” according to one of his assistants, the always slightly inebriated Owen O’Malley (Mark Fishback.)   Unfortunately, Oscar has had a run of flops lately.  Perhaps that is why Owen carries a flask of booze in every pocket.

Oscar’s other assistant, the attractive but business-like Ida Webb, is played by Karen Frye.  Ida is very practical, but even she can be duped into believing something that is too good to be true, especially when the stakes are this high.

Karla D. Williams plays the glamorous Lily Garland, Oscar’s former lover and protégé.  She left him, though, after too many unfulfilled promises, and is now enjoying a successful film career.  I bet her exquisite patrician features show up even better in the movies.

Lily even carries around a shiny gold statue that she recently received in recognition for her work in Hollywood.  It’s a new award and ironically, its name is Oscar, too.  (Properties designed by Maggie E. Ward.  By the way, I also loved the old-fashioned suitcases and Jaffe’s silver-tipped walking stick.)

Kyle Martin plays Lily’s slick, young, and gorgeous lover/manager, George Smith.  Little does he know what he has gotten himself into, hooking up with this diva.

Also on board are the conflicted Dr. Grover Lockwood (Duane Mercer) and his sexy mistress, Anita Highland (Sonja Schoene.)  He is a medical doctor and family man in the open, but a would-be playwright and playboy in secret.   He worries a lot about getting caught, but it is clear they have great chemistry together.

I just HAD to scribble down what Anita says to Grover to reassure her lover when they’re in the New York Central station and he is worried about someone seeing them together.  She says, “No one worries about sex in New York.  They just have it all the time.”  Hah!

Meanwhile, Matthew Clark (Gregory Howard) is a religious fanatic escaped from a mental institution who goes around licking and sticking circulars (and they are actually in the shape of circles!) to the walls and anywhere else they will stick.  “Repent!” they say.  “Repent and be saved!”

The Conductor (Parrish Williams) has his hands full, trying to keep up with everyone’s demands and issues, but he is capable and professional.  I would feel quite comfortable riding on his train.   His sidekick, the cheerful Porter who always has a hopeful hand open, is played by…Paul Hansen?  All I’m going to say about him is that he is a versatile hoot…and so is his program bio.  In fact, be sure to read all of the actor-bios for some value-added yelps.

Before I forget, I want to mention the blocking of this piece.  You’re not meant to notice blocking; in fact, usually if you do, it means something is wrong.  However, I couldn’t help noticing and appreciating the loveliness of the blocking in this show.  It is not a distraction, it is a satisfaction.  Each section of the set is fairly small, without a lot of room in which to move people or arrange people, but the characters in this show always seem to move and gather in aesthetically-pleasing ways that also make sense as they interact with each other.  I admire director Sorbera’s creative use of the small spaces and the furniture.

I’m sure you ARE meant to notice the set, designed by James O. Schumacher.  It is very clever, very fun.  When the show opens, we are outside the glimmering silver train, at the station, but very quickly we climb on board with the characters and share three rooms of the deluxe accommodations with them: the observation room and two drawing rooms.  However, there is only space for two of the rooms on stage at once, so the set slides back and forth to reveal the various rooms as needed.  The effect is of walking back and forth down a moving train.  Oh, I’m laughing with pleasure again, remembering.  Schumacher’s set is very, very cool. 

It is flexibly lit by Ryan Koharchik and enhanced with sound design by Michael J. Lasley.

The 1930s costume design is by Jean Engstrom.  I especially loved the fur stoles of the women.  Costume assistants: Janice Hannon and Robin Uhrig.  Costume intern: Gary Hall.  Costume volunteers: Jenny Hilcz, Stephanie Kern, Karen Martin, Barbara Riordon, Jen Smith, Gretchen Van Winkle.

Hair and makeup design by Debbie Williams.  All of the women have marcelled hair!  It is very pretty and made me want to try that style myself.

The show is stage managed by Allison Ackmann.  Technical direction was by Troy Trinkle.  Stage crew: Hannah Boswell, Brian Bott, Sara Clapp, Nathan Hurst.

“Twentieth Century” continues at the Indianapolis Civic Theatre through Sunday, May 17, 2009.  To make a reservation, please call 317-923-4597.

Hope Baugh –

5 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Twentieth Century” at the Indianapolis Civic Theatre”

  1. Thanks very much, Adrienne! You know me: I love to learn new vocabulary, especially when it is theatre-related! 🙂

  2. Thanks for coming, Hope! I am so glad you enjoyed the show, working on it has been an amazing experience for me!

  3. OK. So now we know what happens and who does what. But, when will the _review_ be published?

  4. HarveyF, thanks very much for reading!

    My reviews focus on what I appreciate about a show, which sometimes comes across as being only “what happens and who does what.” I have made my peace with the fact that this is not what everyone is looking for in a review.

    I usually refer people who are looking for more rigorous criticism, and/or a more “I am the expert” tone, to the professional, paid reviewers in publications such as the Indianapolis Business Journal, Nuvo, and the Indianapolis Star. Unfortunately, those reviewers are trying to cover all of the arts in Indianapolis, so there are often local theatre productions that go completely unreviewed, or unobserved, or whatever.

    I have not found any kind of source that regularly, and frequently, includes evaluative or descriptive information about live theatre shows in the Indianapolis area. None except my blog, that is. If you know of someone else who writes frequently on this topic, or better yet, if you do, yourself, please give me a link! I would love to read your reviews!

    In the meantime, thanks again for reading. ‘See you at the theatres!

Leave a Reply