Award-winning playwright Tom Jacobson (Ouroboros, Bunbury, Sperm) goes undercover in The Twentieth-Century Way and flings wide the closet door, turning on the light to reveal a fascinating, unreported and, by all accounts, ubiquitous stratum of pre-WWI American gay culture.
Basing it on the rudimentary facts from Bryn Mawr history professor Sharon Ullman's probing 1995 paper in the Journal of The History of Sexuality, “The Twentieth-Century Way,” Jacobson constructs his tale in the manner of documentary plays such as Gross Indecency or The Laramie Project, mining trial transcripts and interviews for dialogue, using real people as his characters and actual events for his scenes. While his editing skills are impressive in culling through the material, sad to say, his play isn't nearly as good as his research. We do find out, though, that “the American way” was underground slang for oral sex. Apparently fellatio was all the rage, the newest thing, and not only in the big, bad cities like New York or Los Angeles, but everywhere, as Ullman's research into small-town America proves so indelibly.
Jacobson wraps the drama with a heavy swathe of Pirandello play-acting, as if this is the mother of all theater academy exercises. The natural drama suffocates and never gets up a full head of steam because Jacobson's always popping in to interrupt with these meta-theatrics. He turns the two Chicago detectives, Brown and Warren (Will Bradley and Robert Mammana, both veterans of the off-Broadway production), who investigated – i.e., entrapped – the “queer society” in Long Beach, California, into actors vying for a movie audition. With a few telling brushstrokes, they sketch in their various characters' missing pieces.
These two formidable actors play everyone, from gruff newspaper editor to swishy kimono-wearing city slicker, instantly switching into another accent, another physical tic, another hat change, all while berating each other for improv skills, truth-in-acting and role playing. Jacobson also toys with the concept of whether these two men like their job of seducing men a little too much. There's an electric, combative current of sexual tension between them, a one-upmanship, that's highly suggestive. Their final clinch, naked in the soft light from Mark Lewis's expert re-creation of Elizabeth Harper's original lighting design, truly comes as no surprise.
If only Jacobson would allow the drama to play naturally, without all this artsy, fourth wall-breaking concept. We can't fixate on any one character because we're yanked away to another locale, another person, as soon as we're introduced. It's all about these two anyway, not who they're re-enacting. This is part of Jacobson's maddening method, too. We watch two actors in the art of play-acting other people who must “act” in real life. Is this what life in the closet means? I guess so, or else Jacobson wouldn't beat us about the head with such ferocity.
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There's plenty of red meat in this raw material, stuff ripe and juicy for the stage. Take florist Herbert Lowe (Mammana in soft glow, with flower in his lapel and knees locked tight together). A pillar of Long Beach, respected by his neighbors, when he was arrested for “social vagrancy,” he fought back and demanded a trial. Scandalous – and tremendously brave. Better yet, the jury refused to indict him. Instead, the defense turned against Brown and Warren, impugning their methods and questioning whether they were “on the square.” Quoted by Jacobson from the trial: “Look at this man,” accused attorney Swaffield as he pointed to Warren, “see the puffs beneath the eyes, the sallow complexion, the sleek combed and oiled hair, the pink manicured finger nails. There is the degenerate!” The jury agreed. Mr. Lowe walked free, rejoining society.
In the play, Lowe's entrapment scene, set at one of the many secretive kimono parties, is fraught with loving intimacy, quietly played with real heart and compassion. Mammana, as Lowe, aches for companionship, for a little love, a little tenderness. He's just human. It's the best scene in the play, but it rushes by, interrupted with another quick change as the “actors” further debate whether they've become their parts. The entire play is just a tease.
Illuminating and intriguing as is this hidden gay history, Jacobson clouds the issue by interfering. He's supposed to sweep the mists away, not bring more rain.
The Twentieth-Century Way. Through November 22. Theater LaB at the MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit matchouston.org. $30-$40.