There is a lot of huffing and puffing on stage, and it's not just because the latest Broadway production from the Roundabout Theatre Company is set on the Twentieth Century Limited, the sleek luxury train that once traveled between Chicago and New York.
The celebrated liner, of course, is the focal point of "Twentieth Century," the classic 1930s farce by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur now being revived in a new streamlined adaptation by Ken Ludwig, author of "Lend Me a Tenor" and "Moon Over Buffalo."
Designer John Lee Beatty's spiffy art deco train is the best thing about this strained production, which stars a miscast Alec Baldwin and a hyperactive Anne Heche as two larger-than-life theatrical types destined to battle each other forever.
A portly Baldwin plays Oscar Jaffe, a down-on-his-luck impresario who is fleeing Chicago after a disastrous reception for his latest venture, an epic about Joan of Arc. Jaffe is conniving to reunite with his former leading lady, Lily Garland, now a Hollywood movie star. The tempestuous Lily, portrayed by Heche, wants nothing to do with him, but then Jaffe knew her when - when she was only little Mildred Plotka.
You need extravagant personalities to pull these roles off and while Baldwin and Heche get the play's physical high jinks, its considerable verbal thrusts and parries elude them.
Baldwin affects an odd, overstuffed accent, vaguely British and oh-so-cultured. Unlike a Nathan Lane, who can wring high hilarity out of every moment of desperation, Baldwin's attempts at comic exasperation sputter.
Farce should be played fast, and it is here, thanks to Walter Bobbie's straightforward direction. Yet Heche, also in weird voice, races through her dialogue lickety-split, so quickly, in fact, that the words often end up incomprehensible. That's a shame because there still are genuine chuckles and a few outright belly laughs in this old warhorse, even in Ludwig's extensively pruned version.
But the ultra-thin Heche, looking like a chic Olive Oyl clothed in expensive furs, can be occasionally funny, especially when she is lurching around a train compartment trying to get away from the overbearing Jaffe.
It's up to the supporting cast to carry most of the comic load, and the effort shows. They work very hard, particularly Julie Halston and Dan Butler, as Jaffe's loyal assistants.
The best laugh-getter, though, is Tom Aldredge as the religious fanatic who says he will finance Jaffe's comeback production: a Broadway version - Mel Gibson take note - of the Oberammergau Passion Play. In Jaffe's version, Lily will play Mary Magdalene, a fallen woman saved by her faith.
For all its hard-boiled humor, "Twentieth Century" maintains a genuine affection for the travails of theater folk, on and off the stage. There's a sweet temper behind all the silliness but that fondness and what should be gales of laughter are missing from this ho-hum production.
As I watched the revival of '"Twentieth Century," starring Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche, I found myself humming a song called "Five Zeros."
It's from the 1978 musical "On the Twentieth Century."
Much of the humor in this production falls so flat, I kept thinking how much the songs could have helped.
The dialogue is full of what sounded like song cues for the musical.
"Dying," as the actor Edmund Gwenn remarked, "is easy; comedy is hard." This production is an object lesson.
The comedy - about a legendary Broadway producer, Oscar Jaffe, who is trying to seduce a Hollywood star with whom he once had an affair, Lily Garland, to return to the stage -was written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who wrote "The Front Page." Unlike the latter, which is constantly revived, "Twentieth" has not been done on Broadway in more than 50 years. The current script has been adapted by Ken Ludwig, best known for "Lend Me a Tenor."
As the starlet, Heche works hard at projecting a '30s screwball comedy kind of humor. It is dizzy and endearing, but it seems generic, rather than character-based. She does not project the hauteur of an old-fashioned star.
Nor does Baldwin, who has put on an astonishing amount of weight, really convey a grandiose impresario.
Farce requires precision, and neither he nor Heche has mastered it.
There are two standout performances - Julie Halston as Jaffe's Eve Arden-like secretary, and especially Tom Aldredge as a religious fanatic who becomes Jaffe's generous backer. Aldredge has the energy and timing of farce down perfectly.
There is also good work by Dan Butler, as Jaffe's press agent, and Ryan Shively as Lily's agent/lover.
John Lee Beatty's set evokes the Art Deco train beautifully. William Ivey Long's costumes are devilishly stylish.
The production is amusing, but the comedy has yet to jell.
Suggestion: Older readers may remember that the musical introduced us to young Kevin Kline as Lily's lover.
How about a limited-run revival with Kline as Jaffe?
When Broadway was at its reputed old-time best, the play was no the thing. It was always about the performance.
So an aura of authenticity surrounds the Roundabout Theater's production of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1932 "Twentieth Century," which opened last night at the American Airlines Theater.
Like its title, the farce - the reference is to the Twentieth Century Limited, a famous transcontinental train between Chicago and New York - is a fancy vehicle but easily derailed.
Luckily, the revival, cannily directed by Walter Bobbie, enshrines two glorious star performances from Anne Heche and, particularly, Alec Baldwin. So it's fun - spasmodically.
At any deeper level, it makes you wonder what those who sigh for the Golden Age of Broadway are really sighing for.
That was supposedly the miracle time between world wars when seats were cheap and talent was priceless.
Yet precious few of the plays of that "golden age" have survived as nostalgia, let alone art. The all-too-slender charms of "Twentieth Century" are typical.
Here, a one-time successful Broadway producer, Oscar Jaffe (Baldwin), is down on his luck - shades of Max Bialystock in "The Producers" -and needs to corral Lily Garland (Heche), the Oscar-winning actress Jaffe claims to have made (in every sense), to star in a new show.
With his loyal secretary, Ida (a divine Julie Halston), and a bulldog of an assistant, Owen O'Malley (Dan Butler), Jaffe secures a stateroom next to Lily, who's traveling with her personal agent, George Smith (Ryan Shively), whose services are extremely personal.
On the train, Ida finds a bonanza in a religious nut named Matthew Clark (a nicely crazed Tom Aldredge), who's posing as a multimillionaire willing to invest thousands in a Passion play starring Lily as Mary Magdalene.
The elderly, nutty Clark intends to play Jesus.
By the time Clark's carted back to the nuthouse he escaped from, Jaffe with a final ploy wins back Lily, and, more important, gets her good-as-backer's-gold signature on a contract. End of journey, end of play.
I've never encountered the original play, although I well recall the enjoyable 1978 Broadway musical it inspired, "On the Twentieth Century," by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Cy Coleman.
Here, the original script, derived from an earlier play by one Charles Bruce Milholland, has been revised by Ken ("Lend Me a Tenor") Ludwig, who has also happily changed the gender of Jaffe's secretary and reduced the number of actors to the more Spartan economics of modern Broadway.
Ludwig's work isn't as smooth as the brilliant version of MacArthur and Hecht's earlier and bigger success, "The Front Page," which John Guare recently remade for Britain's National Theater.
It would have been far more sensible of the Roundabout to have staged that Guare rather than this freight train posing as an express, for not only does Ludwig's adaptation lack the flair of the Comden and Green musical, but the production itself seems less glamorous.
William Ivey Long's costumes are stylistically on target for the period, but John Lee Beatty's train, agreeable enough, is no match for the art-deco glamour Robin Wagner brought to the musical.
Luckily, we have Baldwin and Heche, who, given the slightest chance (and some are slight indeed) are absolutely hilarious.
Heche seems to be made of India rubber, draping herself across the play while diving into deepest divadom with a satiric simmer and outrageous confidence.
Baldwin instinctively reminds us that John Barrymore played in the movie version opposite Carole Lombard, and pouts like a bejowled pigeon in a mating ritual.
Even when the play grinds virtually to a halt, Bobbie's production guarantees that with Baldwin and Heche, aided and abetted by Halston and Aldredge, you will have a little histrionic scenery to watch while the signals change.
Featuring the gorgeous, glossy heads of Anne Heche and Alec Baldwin preening cheek to cheek, the posters for the new revival of ''Twentieth Century,'' at the American Airlines Theater, promise an onstage love affair that sizzles with glamour and narcissism. Yet by far the most exciting chemistry in the draggy revival from the Roundabout Theater Company that opened last night is what crackles between Lily Garland and Mildred Plotka.
Both, by the way, are portrayed by Ms. Heche. Actually, they're the same person. But you could still in all honesty call their relationship a love affair. Make that a love-hate affair, which is always more interesting anyway.
In Walter Bobbie's fitful production of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's portrait of battling theatrical egos, newly trimmed and adapted by Ken Ludwig, Ms. Heche portrays Lily Garland, née Mildred Plotka. Lily is one of those 1930's movie goddesses who look as if they were born on a sea-wafted half shell, wreathed in white satin and platinum hair. But in Ms. Heche's angular, animated performance, that scrappy little floozie named Mildred keeps peeking out from beneath the tinsel.
Her posture melting between serpentine seductiveness and a street fighter's aggressiveness, her voice shifting between supper-club velvet and dime store vinyl, Ms. Heche summons an entire gallery of studio-made sirens from the Depression era: Jean Harlow, the pre-mummified Joan Crawford and, yes, Carole Lombard, who famously portrayed Lily in Howard Hawks's screen version of ''Twentieth Century.''
Ms. Heche's self-dramatizing character is a happily unhappy fraud, a shopgirl who became the women she worshiped on the screen, and she can't help wallowing in the theatrics of her good fortune. Whenever she's onstage, this ''Twentieth Century,'' set on a New York-bound luxury train, picks up speed.
Otherwise -- despite the formidable if misapplied charisma of Mr. Baldwin in the role of Lily's great love and nemesis, the megalomaniacal theater producer Oscar Jaffe -- this comedy of grand postures and bad manners feels stalled in the 1930's, gathering dust. You start to realize there are reasons it hasn't been revived on Broadway in more than 50 years. (An appealing musical adaptation, ''On the Twentieth Century,'' was staged in 1978.)
''A 'Grand Hotel' on wheels'' was the way one critic described the play when it opened in 1932. Another reviewer said, perhaps more accurately, that it was ''a monumental Bronx salute to the Titans of Times Square.'' Hecht and MacArthur were the former newspapermen who had razzed their old profession with such gusto four years earlier in ''The Front Page.'' Having now tilled the rocky soil of Broadway and Hollywood, they came up with a similarly peppy poisoned valentine to the petty bigshots of showbiz.
You can still sense some of the rattling ''Front Page''-style exuberance and discordant comedy that made ''Twentieth Century'' click by watching the 1934 movie, directed by Hawks (who also did Hecht and MacArthur proud with his ''Front Page''-inspired ''His Girl Friday'') and starring Lombard and John Barrymore. That film has been credited with setting off the wave of screwball comedies that glittered through the following decade. And it's true that in Barrymore and Lombard's adversarial, bruising and (implicitly) highly sexed relationship, you have a paradigm of sorts for the warring lovers of movies like ''Bringing Up Baby'' and ''It Happened One Night.''
But it takes two to dance the apache-style tango that is Oscar and Lily's relationship. Oscar is the impresario who made Mildred Plotka a star (and gave her a new name) years ago, leading to a professional and erotic partnership that ended explosively. Now, having closed yet another show on the road, Oscar wants to reclaim Lily from Hollywood for both his bed and the stage. And he has arranged to be in the compartment next to hers on the 20th Century Limited.
Since it's a given that the resourceful, bullying Oscar is going to win, the tension in ''Twentieth Century'' has to rise from the friction between these two scheming poseurs and from their competitive living of every moment as if it were a curtain scene. But while Ms. Heche is beaming light rays directly into Mr. Baldwin's forehead, he generally fails to respond in kind.
This is disappointing, since it was Mr. Baldwin's performance that I was especially looking forward to. Over the last two decades, he has established himself as a wily and intelligent actor, and he showed a gift for skewering his own profession in his role as a lecherous, fading movie star in David Mamet's ''State and Main.'' Certainly he knows how to serve ham, should the occasion require it.
Yet while he lands every punch line in ''Twentieth Century,'' often with finesse, he does not deliver an Oscar who is the all-controlling nerve center of a madcap universe. Instead, he seems like the glazed eye of a hurricane. Considerably heavier than in his last Broadway outing as Stanley Kowalski in ''A Streetcar Named Desire,'' Mr. Baldwin's Oscar suggests a big, diabolical baby, waiting to be indulged and pampered, somewhat in the manner of the pompous title character in ''The Man Who Came to Dinner.''
His voice is smooth, plummy and mostly unvarying, like that of a man who long ago settled into his chosen facade and can't be shaken out of it. Though he may fall to the ground in a melodramatic swoon or briefly skip in self-satisfaction, he is essentially a nondynamic presence. While Ms. Heche, looking every inch the siren in William Ivey Long's slinky period costumes, does her best to rouse the old boy into action, he turns out to be an immovable mountain.
It's understandable that Mr. Baldwin would want to avoid copying Barrymore's manic, flamboyantly mannered performance. But he doesn't meet Ms. Heche's intensity. And it's hard to believe -- as you must -- that these two impossible people have to wind up together.
Deprived of its central sensual motor, the production as a whole tends to creep when it should be accelerating. The revised, tightened script by Mr. Ludwig (''Lend Me a Tenor''), which perversely sets the action in 1938 (six years later than the original), is heavy on name-dropping jokes that go clunk. It also cuts the number of speaking parts by more than a third. Given contemporary production costs, this makes sense, but there's an unavoidable feeling of underpopulated corridors about John Lee Beatty's sleek, sliding set.
The ensemble members do their best to generate an atmosphere of screwball mayhem. But it rarely feels persuasive, and the strain shows in their performances, which are mostly pitched at a level that makes your throat hurt in sympathy.
The cast includes an overeager Julie Halston and an appealingly easygoing Dan Butler, as Oscar's long-suffering assistants, and Ryan Shively, who as Lily's hunky boy toy of an agent makes an appropriately smoldering foil to the combustible Ms. Heche. Among the supporting players, though, it's that Broadway veteran Tom Aldredge who stands out, irrepressibly long-faced and funereal as Matthew Clark, a Bible-thumping lunatic with a mission to save the worldly.
Incidentally, Clark becomes involved with Oscar in a plan to produce a great theatrical epic whose subject turns out to be oddly topical. Yes, years before Mel Gibson was even born, Oscar and Lily were discussing putting on a Broadway extravaganza based on the Passion of the Christ. Were she to have traveled to the 21st century, Lily would be unlikely to have landed the role Oscar intended for her, the Magdalene, in Mr. Gibson's movie on the same theme.
After all, Lily believes that Jesus' last words on the Cross were ''Let my people go.'' Still, it's hard to resist the purple-toned sincerity brought to that declaration by Ms. Heche's Lily, who believes anything she says at the moment she's saying it, provided it sounds dramatic enough.
The gowns, by William Ivey Long, are late-'30s swank. The Deco train from Chicago to New York, designed by John Lee Beatty, is outfitted with all the luxe and style we imagine the cross-country carriage trade demanded. The direction is by Walter Bobbie, the wizard who ran City Center's Encore! series in its grand early years and staged the "Chicago" revival that revved the fortunes of the dazzling show forever.
There are - what's a good extravagant old word? - scads of reasons to want to be swept away by the new-old A-list "Twentieth Century," which opened last night at the Roundabout Theatre Company's 42nd Street jewelbox. For starters, there is Alec Baldwin, his career rehabilitated by his Oscar-nominated turn as a Vegas toughie in "The Cooler," and back on Broadway for the first time since he was a gifted pretty-boy hunk with anything-goes potential.
Then there is Anne Heche, creating her first starring role on Broadway after a spectacular stage debut two years ago in the umpteenth replacement cast of "Proof." As anyone knows who was fortunate enough to have caught her exquisitely detailed character analysis, the actress is that rare stage creature - a natural - with abilities that obliterate the seasons of nutball gossip and the vaguely certifiable persona in her autobiography.
By now, careful readers may sense that disappointing news cannot be delayed for another paragraph of vamping.
You see, "Twentieth Century" is not a lark. Ken Ludwig's flat and desperate new adaptation of the 1932 screwball comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur is not the stylish funball that would justify such investments by this first-class creative team.
Bobbie has directed everyone to hit every minor comic turn as if major hilarity were being served to the back of the house on a big heavy platter. Efforts to whip up a frothy romantic entertainment are so deliberate that the hard-working cast just seems whipped.
Admittedly, we never were sufficiently amused by Ludwig's own popular comedies, "Lend Me a Tenor" and "Moon Over Buffalo." But he has Hecht and MacArthur to help shape the vision, not to mention Howard Hawks' 1934 movie and the 1978 Broadway musical adaptation, "On the Twentieth Century."
The new version, incomprehensibly updated from 1932 to 1938, has halved the original cast of dozens to a more affordable tribe and streamlined the old-time leisurely action to an audience-friendly couple of hours.
Lost along the way, alas, is chasm. Baldwin and Heche are endearingly persistent about pretending the project has oodles of chasm. Before long, however, we just feel tired for them.
Baldwin plays Oscar Jaffe, the ego-driven Broadway producer who hasn't had a hit since his protege, Lily Garland, abandoned him and the stage to be a movie star. Heche is very, very thin and Baldwin, well, is not. There is a likable chemistry between them, but the direction is so busy and the jokes so lame that the intended conflagration is more like a spark.
Heche, a marvelous physical comedian, noodles her long limbs around men and furniture while juggling Lily's high-and-low-class mood swings. Baldwin has a light way with preening, though when an idea occurs to Oscar, it looks a bit like gastric distress.
Julie Halston and Dan Butler do the heavy comic lifting as Oscar's loyal staff, though she has been finnier and his Irish accent is a sometime thing. Tom Aldredge is frantic and annoying as the rich Jesus freak who, having escaped from an asylum, pastes "repent" signs on walls and people. Kellie Overbey and Jonathan Walker are wasted as the bimbo and the married doctor. Ryan Shively looks more like Lily's bodyguard than her manager, but at least she has someone to play with.
Then there is Stephen DeRosa, called Beard, who arrives with greasy hair and a German accent to sell the centuries-old Passion Play, the Oberammergau, to Oscar for Broadway. This is meant to be a laugh riot. Don't tell Mel Gibson.
For the audience, a good farce is among the purest of escapist pleasures. For actors, however, it can be a perilous tightrope walk, where the slightest slip can cause even an accomplished pro to lapse into mugging.
That threat is always present in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Twentieth Century (* * ½ out of four) — at least, whenever the leading man and lady are on stage.
Lend Me a Tenor playwright Ken Ludwig's brisk adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1932 romp, which opened Thursday at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre, casts Alec Baldwin as Oscar Jaffe, a preening, temperamental theater producer, and Anne Heche as Lily Garland, an opportunistic, easily unhinged actress. Those who have followed press reports documenting the stars' personal travails might observe, smirking, that each brings a certain measure of experience and insight to these roles.
Whether that's a fair assessment or not, both Baldwin and Heche have proved their artistic mettle in front of the camera and treading the boards, and both invest their work here with predictable vigor and style. But parts as flamboyant and wacky as Oscar and Lily also demand a sort of illusion of cluelessness; one should never get the impression that the actor is fully aware of how ludicrous the character is behaving, or is enjoying the spectacle as a viewer would.
Thus, while Heche's Lily deftly evokes the mannerisms of a period diva and affirms the actress's flair for physical comedy, there is a whiff of self-indulgence in her aggressive affectations and relentless flailing. As Lily's financially strapped mentor and former lover, who is desperately trying to win back her affection and earning power, Baldwin is less egregiously hammy. But his haughty quips and intoned hissy fits, however smartly rendered, can seem monotonous.
Some supporting players offer more finesse. Dan Butler turns in a crisply wry performance as Jaffe's press agent, while Tom Aldredge is droll as a Bible-thumping old coot seduced by Jaffe's exotic vision for an account of Jesus Christ's Passion, which appears to bear little resemblance to Mel Gibson's. Stephen DeRosa proves a hilarious double threat as a megalomaniacal rival producer and a German actor known simply as Beard, who is set to play "der Christus" opposite Lily's Mary Magdalene in Jaffe's spiritual extravaganza.
To facilitate the action, which takes place on a train, veteran set designer John Lee Beatty has fashioned a sleek set of cars that move and gleam inconspicuously, supporting the story without overshadowing it.
Though not all the acting is as finely nuanced, this Century manages to deliver, for the most part, an entertaining ride.
Chug, chug, hiss, hiss. John Lee Beatty's gleaming deco set slides back and forth across the stage of the American Airlines Theater, niftily suggesting a train in motion. But the new Broadway revival of "Twentieth Century," Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1932 comedy about showbiz shenanigans on the rails, never works up a head of steam. The marquee stars, a miscast Alec Baldwin and a manic Anne Heche, are sorely mismatched, and Walter Bobbie's staging of Ken Ludwig's new adaptation is alternately limp and labored. All aboard for boredom.
The hit Broadway comedies from the 1930s, with their flamboyant characters and snappy dialogue, are tempting targets for resurrection. But comedy can lose its luster quickly, as styles evolve and tastes are refined -- or, for that matter, coarsened. Much of the raillery in "Twentieth Century" now raises little more than an indulgent smile. Last season's reprise of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's "Dinner at Eight" wasn't much more successful at reanimating characters and situations that have grown a little hackneyed with overexposure. And with the first-rate movie versions of most of these plays readily available on video or DVD, only truly outstanding or inventive reinterpretations of this frothy fare can truly make a case for their enduring appeal onstage.
The Roundabout's production is a reinvention of sorts: In the interest of economizing, Ludwig has trimmed and reshaped the play to fit a cast of about a dozen -- still hefty, of course, by today's Broadway standard, but about half the number in the original. Can it be that a lot of good material got left on the platform in Chicago? Certainly the primary remaining subplots -- one about a religious fanatic plastering the train with stickers exhorting patrons to repent, the other concerning a philandering doctor with secret playwriting ambitions -- aren't exactly solid-gold comedy nuggets.
But part of the appeal of the frantic comedies of the period was their anything-and-everything-for-a-laugh capaciousness: Keep the jokes and gags coming fast and furious, and if one doesn't land, the next just might. Ludwig's downsized version feels underpopulated; small-fry comic characters are asked to pick up too much slack. As a result, Bobbie's cast -- which includes seasoned comic performers like Julie Halston as Ida Webb, exasperated manager of Baldwin's imperious producer Oscar Jaffe, and "Frasier's" Dan Butler, as Jaffe's tippling Irish press agent -- strains to keep the antic plot in motion and the comic atmosphere on the boil. (For the record, Halston's character was male in the original.) Only Stephen DeRosa, doubling as a goofy German actor and Jaffe's rival Max Jacobs, is able to make the most of his comic opportunities without letting the effort show.
This might not be such a liability if the play's central plot, about the desperate but proud Jaffe's attempts to woo back to the stage his erstwhile lover, movie star Lily Garland (Heche), were enacted with sufficient style and panache. But Baldwin and Heche often seem to be annotating their characters rather than inhabiting them.
Baldwin, looking portly, is an awkward fit for the role of the pompous, flamboyant Jaffe, played in the Howard Hawks movie by John Barrymore (offering up a peerless morsel of self-parody). Baldwin is an earthy actor with a natural contemporary style, and his hoity-toity faux-British accent sounds more off-key than it should; rather than a self-invented theatrical grandee smoothly papering over his plebeian roots, he suggests Kelsey Grammer's Frasier Crane, or a "Saturday Night Live" parody of a "Masterpiece Theater" host.
Heche proves to be a deft and adventurous comedienne, flailing her little limbs about with hilarious abandon as the histrionic Lily laments her endless persecution at the hands of former and current lovers. (Ryan Shively takes the bland role of chiseled current paramour and agent.) She looks grand in William Ivey Long's swanky period duds and brings a daffy, reckless edge to Lily's self-infatuated musings. But the performance is more a series of effects than a coherent whole, and Heche's odd nasal purr is one of the chancier gambits: Too often she sounds like a chipmunk attempting a Katharine Hepburn impersonation.
Chemistry is key here: Our engagement in the comic frenzy surrounding Jaffe's attempt to find a suitably enticing vehicle for Lily depends on an interest in seeing them reunited. Here that desire is never really ignited -- Baldwin and Heche strike few sparks together. Granted, that's not an easy task when most of their dialogue involves the exchange of vituperation, but there's no submerged romantic charge underneath the warring words, as there certainly was in the movie, thanks to Carole Lombard's sweet, luminous vulnerability. Neither Baldwin nor Heche is able to convince us there's a heart beneath the layers of ham.