BY DAVID KENNERLEY | Five years after winning the FringeNYC Overall Excellence in Production of a Play Award in 2010, “The Twentieth-Century Way” has finally landed Off Broadway. And it’s only gotten more potent with age.
This lean, erotically charged two-hander, co-presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and the Theatre @ Boston Court, delivers everything you want in a gay play — heart-racing drama, vivid characters, tart dialogue, and well-placed nudity. Sure, the borderline pretentious meta-theatrics are challenging, but the work is worth it.
The story, set in 1914 Long Beach, California, starts out simply enough. Two dapper men, Mr. Warren and Mr. Brown, are actors waiting to audition for a plum movie role. It’s not long before Warren challenges Brown to an absurd contest of improvisational role-play. The winner gets the job, the loser goes home empty-handed.
The scenario for the contest? Vice officers entrapping homosexuals in public changing rooms and private sex clubs, in an effort to “stamp out sin” and “liquidate lasciviousness.” The men engage in a muscular pas de deux, trying with all their might to outdo one another, sometimes portraying the cops, sometimes the queers.
Things get dicey when the line between the entrapper and the entrapped becomes blurred. Are the men, posing as homosexuals, becoming queer themselves? The sexual tension is so acute you can practically smell it.
What makes the drama, written by Tom Jacobson, even more captivating is that it’s based on actual events. As chronicled in Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons’ book “Gay L.A.,” Warren and Brown were real actors recruited by the Long Beach police department to snare gay men (at $15 a head, it was a fairly lucrative acting gig) and many facts were drawn from newspaper accounts of the period. There’s even a reference to the Slide, New York’s infamous den of gay depravity.
Strangely enough, the drama serves up a delectable lesson on fellatio. It wasn’t until the early 20th century when the push for public hygiene made the practice, er, more palatable.
“Cleaner bodies meant cleaner dicks,” Warren says bluntly. “Clean enough to eat off of... With the demise of the cheesy dick, new life was breathed into an old vice.”
The practice, often done furtively and on the fly, was aided further by the invention of the trouser zipper, which meant easy access and a hasty retreat. Such oral vice was known as “the twentieth century way.”
Another historical tidbit: undercover cops would entice an unsuspecting queer to insert his erect penis through a public toilet glory hole and then, during a moment of ecstasy, mark it with an X in indelible ink. Proof positive of his deviancy in court.
Not that entrapping innocent gays is relegated to history. Remember a few years back when a vice squad falsely arrested men for prostitution in Chelsea and East Village porn shops? As reported in Gay City News, a younger man (an undercover cop) aggressively flirted with his targets and after they agreed to consensual sex, he offered to pay them. The gay men were cuffed even though no cash agreement was made.
The fearless performances, under the taut direction of Michael Michetti, are nothing short of impeccable; the actors shift effortlessly among a range of provocative characters. Will Bradley brings a burning desperation to Mr. Brown, the “pretty” actor who lends an air of dignity to his portrayal of effeminate fairies. Robert Mammana is affecting as Mr. Warren, the more macho of the pair, a tough guy with a tender underbelly.
“Everyone is acting all the time,” Warren observes. “Every job is a role. Every relationship a masquerade.”
With actors furiously swapping out suit jackets, police caps, silk kimonos, and swishy scarves, “The Twentieth-Century Way” recalls the antics of other quick-change shows like “The 39 Steps,” except manic humor is replaced with anguished urgency.
In this labyrinthine funhouse of a play, tinged with shades of Brecht and Pirandello, roles and allegiances morph and fold in upon one another.
Scenic designer Clifton Chadick has wisely kept the set elements to a bare minimum. A rack of costumes is easily wheeled around to suggest various rooms or a toilet stall divider. Onstage is a large leather trunk, a few period light fixtures, a couple of chairs, and that’s about it.
In the end, the two men shuck off their disguises and embrace the truth. Perhaps they are taking to heart a warning from one of their foppish targets: “All we have is the moment, and the moment does not last.”
THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY WAY | Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Pl., btwn. Perry & W. 11th Sts. | Through Jul. 19: Mon., Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $10-$50; rattlestick.org or 866-811-4111 f | Ninety mins., no intermission