Review Rundown: “The Twentieth-Century Way”

And, as it happens, Michetti, Mammana and Bradley are the perfect team for Jacobson’s play as well. As Mammana and Bradley slip in and out of various characters, accents and situations, working at an increasingly dizzying pace toward the “emotional climax,” the two perform with split-second timing and assurance. The ending is perhaps a little protracted, but the wait is worth it, primarily because this play raises some disturbing questions that are still being asked today — nearly 100 years after those arrests in Long Beach.

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Few joys are more long-lasting than seeing a theatrical work that contains enough complexity to make one ponder. An intricate piece written and produced well will leave one peeling layers away for days. One gradually comes to full understanding of something which was, on first encounter, like an unopened bud: full of depth and richness hidden behind a structured exterior.  Take, as case in point, Tom Jacobson’s intricate, fascinating, and very adult play, “The Twentieth Century Way,” at The Theatre at Boston Court. Receiving its world premiere, this play purports to be about an actual historical incident in Long Beach in 1914. Yet, as the two-man cast examines this, it is also about much else: artifice, self-loathing, conscience in the face of conformity, facing the consequences of one’s actions. It is about the layers one puts on, the questions one leaves unanswered in creating one’s public face.

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Homosexual history is suddenly out of the theatrical closet, its dozens of timely untold stories itching to be dramatized. Jon Marans’ “The Temperamentals” described the 1950s birth of the gay rights movement, and now Tom Jacobson’s “The Twentieth-Century Way,” exposing an officially sanctioned malesex entrapment ring in 1914, explains why the movement was necessary. Yet Jacobson is after even bigger game, wrapping his tale in a Pirandellian conceit to forge a link to our own day. Accept that convention or not, it’s scintillatingly performed at the Theater@Boston Court.

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The Twentieth Century Way is fascinating, insightful, and wonderfully free from cheap posturing. Jacobson’s sure-footed romp through the idiocies of public morals crusades and homophobic bigotry is free from the tiresome self-pitying anger that infests so much else in current gay-themed material. There is enormous humor and depth to his vision and it’s brought into brilliant focus by the impressive talents of the two actors and director Michael Michetti, whose staging at times approaches grand farce in the rapid fire pacing and seamless transitions.

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“Playing gay” lies at the heart of Tom Jacobson’s scintillating new play, which just opened at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena. It’s not so prosaically topical as to pluck its theme from contemporary newspaper headlines. Rather, it harvests its ideas from newspaper headlines from the prior century: snippets from the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee of 1914, about some high-society Long Beach gents who had been similarly cuffed in a sting operation, their lives similarly ruined.

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In 1914, Long Beach Police Department hired two actors named Warren and Brown as “vice specialists.”  Their job was to go into private clubs and public changing rooms and arrest gay men in the act of being . . . gay.  That appalling and tantalizing little historical detail is the kernel of Tom Jacobson’s new play – “The Twentieth Century Way.”  It’s  currently premiering at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena.  Jacobson’s passed this historical footnote through the prism of theater history and artistic soul searching and come up with a 90 minute theatrical workout for two wonderfully talented actors – Will Bradley & Robert Mammana.

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Critic’s Pick!

Playwright Tom Jacobson is known for tacking challenging themes, and his latest effort—recounting a scandalous little-known chapter in Southern California history—is among his boldest. Not content to merely relate a fascinating milestone in gay-rights travails, Jacobson sets the stage for two versatile actors to explore multilayered ruminations on sexual identity, institutional corruption, the conscience of civil servants carrying out questionable duties, the mysteries of the acting craft, and more. Director Michael Michetti and first-rate actors Will Bradley and Robert Mammana take us on an illuminating theatrical adventure not likely to be forgotten.

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Oedipus El Rey was touted as the best reviewed production in Theatre @ Boston Court history.   I venture to guess that The Twentieth Century Way will not lag far behind.  Challenging and “experimental” in a way that in lesser hands could go grievously wrong, this Jacobson/Michetti/Bradley/Mammana collaboration is an all-around artistic smash.  For this and other reasons, I predict sold-out houses throughout the run.  History lesson, acting tour-de-force, brain-teaser, and writing/directorial triumph, The Twentieth Century Way is all this … and more.

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Director Michael Michetti guides us through Jacobson’s fascinating and complex tapestry of exposition and artifice with commendable clarity. In the week after the news broke about anti-gay crusader George Rekers traveling in Europe with a young man from, Jacobson’s material doesn’t seem at all musty.  Perhaps soon we’ll see a play loosely based on Rekers’ spring vacation – titled The Twenty-First-Century Way.

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An obscure 1914 episode in Long Beach involving police entrapment of 31 homosexuals could easily have sufficed as the subject of a conventional historical drama, but it’s merely the jumping-off point for playwright Tom Jacobson’s trademark cerebral acrobatics in his new play, “The Twentieth-Century Way” at Pasadena’s The Theatre@Boston Court.

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As directed by Michael Michetti, the play moves relentlessly forward, barely stopping for a breath until the moving final moment. Tom Jacobson’s script is supremely well written and consistently engaging even if you aren’t always sure where it’s headed. The set by Nick Santiago evokes the simple backstage of a theatre with one rack of costumes and two chairs and a desk that are put to effective use.

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