Fun and energetic Broadway train-comedy pulls into Paradise
Theatre on the Ridge’s current offering is a breezy, laugh-out-loud production of Twentieth Century, a melodramatic screwball comedy set on a Depression-era luxury train and led by two of the area’s finest performers, Jerry Miller and Sheri Bagley.
The classic Broadway production gives the audience a twisted glimpse into the wheeling and dealing of glamorous movie stars and the Broadway producers who seek them out. Guided here by TOTR Executive Director Judy Clemens, Miller gave a commanding performance last Friday (June 8) as the play’s loveable cad, Oscar Jaffe, a pathetically self-absorbed, pompous movie producer whom some consider a luminary while those who get a peek at the real man behind the curtain more accurately know him as a cretin.
Jaffe, who faces financial ruin after a dreadful money-losing Joan of Arc-based production, is financially exhausted to the point that his theater is near foreclosure. We find him and his assistants searching for answers on an overnight Chicago-to-New York 20th Century Limited train ride on which one of Jaffe’s former stars, Lily Garland, happens to be traveling. Jaffe is motivated to sign Garland to a contract—problem is, his next hit play has not yet been written. That doesn’t deter Jaffe, who will do anything to get her name on the dotted line.
Presented on a stage that simultaneously houses two drawing rooms and an observation car, action breezily flittered between the three locations, with clever lighting techniques defining which room the audience should focus upon while minor action occasionally continues in the two alternate rooms, enough to add extra atmosphere, but subdued enough to not impede on the main action.
Bagley superbly assumed the persona of the jewel-festooned Garland, an over-privileged actress who is as histrionic as she is alluring. Garland has the two-faced ability to proclaim both her love and hate of a man within 20 seconds and is convinced that she is unfairly oppressed despite her elevated status. “Why do they do this to me? What do they think I’m made of?” she whines. “All of them, tearing at my nerves. All I want is a little peace.”
Jaffe the schemer is flanked by his loyal manager, Ida, and trusty assistant, Owen. The assertive and effectual Ida, portrayed with admirable conviction by Miller’s real-life wife, Teresa Hurley, is his closest confidant, absorbing mercurial behavior that ranges from partial strangulation to adoring praise.
Owen, who sees through his boss’s deceptions and trickery but nevertheless remains his confidant, was effectively played by Eric Ricketts.
Also on the train is Jaffe’s most direct competition, Max Jacobs (Richard Lauson), whom Jaffe remembers as Max Mandelbaum. “He started out selling herring on 34th Street till they arrested him for unclean practices.” Jaffe’s disdain for Jacobs is apparent when he summons Owen to send a wire to Jacobs, which begins, “Dear Max: You are the foulest, most vile, putrid piece of trash that ever walked this earth—and I say that with all due respect.”
Ken Mathieson partially stole the show as Matthew Clark, a very animated religious zealot with an “overwhelming desire to save people,” and who made a fortune selling laxative tablets. Sean Green was excellent as Garland’s young manager/lover George Smith, and John Duncan who in the last two years has really established himself in the area as a top-notch actor capable of adapting a wide variety of roles, did a splendid job as the Conductor, the only straight man in the play.
As TOTR’s most enduring figure, Lauson consummately assumed three roles: the detective, an individual known as “The Beard,” as well as the fat-cigar-smoking, beret-wearing, loud-mouthed producer Max Jacobs.
The question of the play: Will the past collaborations of Jaffe and Garland lead to renewed success, or will his overzealous pipe dream promises bring him and the fame-hungry star to ruin? It’s well worth heading up to Paradise to find out.