- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

Three years into the new millennium, and already we’re weary of the future. In this time of war, blackouts, and uncertainty, one can be forgiven for wishing that life were like the Turner Classic Movies channel — full of snappy patter, dapper tailoring, wisecracking dames and fellas who know the value of a good haberdasher.

If you wish theater were more like old movies, look no further than Signature Theatre. All that’s missing from its world premiere of local playwright Ken Ludwig’s dashing “Twentieth Century” (a sprucing up and paring down of the classic play and film by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur) is the RKO Studios logo.

If you’re going retro, there isn’t a better vehicle than Signature’s production, buffed to a high polish by director Eric Schaeffer. First off, set designer James Kronzer has outdone himself transforming the space-challenged Signature interior. This time around, the audience sits in a bleacher-like formation smack-dab in front of an astonishingly accurate replica of the train, the 20th Century Limited.

The set even moves, as if on a track, revealing the sumptuous art deco drawing rooms, suites and reading areas all rendered in deep reds and taupes. Amtrak looks particularly dowdy in comparison.

Riding aboard this elegant tin can is Oscar Jaffe (James Barbour), a down-at-his-spats theatrical producer, who, after the resounding thud of his latest production, “Joan of Arc,” is in desperate need of a hit. The answer to his prayers is in the adjoining drawing room — Lily Garland (Holly Twyford), Oscar’s protege and former lover who is now a big Hollywood star with the gold statuette to prove it.

Lily is traveling with her agent/boy toy, George Smith (Will Gartshore), who is long on looks and short on brains. He and theater producer Max Jacobs (Rick Hammerly) are in heated competition to see who can spout the most “Goldwynisms” (colorful malapropisms) in the span of a single play.

Employing his genial but slightly nefarious assistants Oliver Webb (Harry A. Winter) and the tippling Owen O’Malley (Christopher Bloch), Oscar will stop at nothing, not even an eleventh-hour brainstorm about mounting a sexed-up version of “The Passion Play” on Broadway, to win Lily back to his side.

The train is also populated with a hanky panky-minded unmarried couple, Dr. Lockwood (Thomas Adrian Simpson) and Anita Highland (Rachel Gardner). Anita wants to make the most of the pull-down beds, Dr. Lockwood wants to impress Oscar with his playwriting prowess.

Wouldn’t you know it, all of his plays feature heroic surgeons.

“Twentieth Century” has a freight load of characters, but trumping them all is Donna Migliaccio’s wonderfully demented turn as Myrtle Clark (in the original Hecht-MacArthur script, a man). Professing to be a laxative heiress, Myrtle is actually an escapee from the loony bin. Gleefully defacing the train and all its passengers with “Repent! The End is Near!” stickers and thumping her Bible, Miss Migliaccio, with her owlish expressions and busybody body language, is a fiendish delight. Speaking of small parts writ large, Frederick Strother adds coy nuance to the role of the Conductor.

As Oscar Jaffe, Mr. Barbour employs that sell-it-to-the-cheap seats kind of grandiose charm that puts you in mind of David Merrick crossed with the Max Bialystock character from “The Producers.” His posh, liquidy faux British accent and nimble, Sarah Bernhardt gestures are funny enough, but he reaches an all-time high in the scene where he expatiates on how he could make “The Passion Play” jazzier and more spectacular.

As his foil, Lily Garland, Miss Twyford is a brassy and mouthy blonde in the Joan Blondell tradition. In fact, she’s like a palooka in designer threads, combative and crass. You never get to see what made her a good actress, except in one broad scene where Lily walks into Oscar’s suite to meet a potential investor. She’s dressed in a champagne sequinned gown and dripping with jewelry — including a diamond tiara. “This old thing?” she coos, dazzling everyone in her wake.

As good as they are separately, Mr. Barbour and Miss Twyford are unconvincing as people who have an undying attraction for one another. She is just too brittle, he is just too affected.

“Twentieth Century” is striking to look at: the costumes, the set, and the racing pace of the dialogue are as chic as the heels of a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos striking a marble floor. It is farcical and whip-smart and leaves an impression about as lasting as a puff of train smoke.

***

WHAT: “Twentieth Century” by Ken Ludwig

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run, Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 5.

TICKETS: $22 to $36

PHONE: 800/955-5566

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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