‘Ziiip, ziiiiiiip.’ A suited and self-assured figure draws down, up, down, up his flies while a more guileless, male onlooker sits in awe. It’s 1914 and this technological upgrade for buttons has just hit the market. For some, however, its invention was to become irrevocably linked to a particularly dark era of America policing.
The Twentieth Century Way is set in the LA gay scene at a time when predatory ‘vice specialists’ would pose as homosexuals to trick members of the gay community into unzipping for sexual acts. These actors, hired by the Californian police department, would hurriedly use a pen to mark the victim’s genitals, then earn $15 for each arrest. The deception led to thirty-one men being caught in this way, as well as at least one suicide.
Tom Jacobson’s script is unwieldy in its portrayal of this harrowing period. The historical context in itself is horrendous, but this dramatised version seems more interested in its own metatheatrical artifice than the early 20th-century milieu it’s depicting. The play’s overarching themes of dissemblance become entangled in bundled threads of actors playing actors playing actors… playing actors? I don’t think I was alone in being vaguely disorientated at times.
The story opens with a seated figure (Fraser Wall) twitching nervously in line for a film audition. A rival actor (James Sindall) strides in and immediately sizes up the ‘pretty’ chap queuing ahead of him. Within seconds, this late arrival, Warren, sets the play’s dynamic by mocking the tense actor, Brown, asserting his seniority with a series of (hilarious) put-downs.
Sparring quickly develops into a full-on acting duel between the pair: each has to improvise various personalities from the 1914 horrors that struck LA’s homosexual circles, else they forfeit the challenge. If you want a thorough test of your ability to concentrate, this will do the job. And on the whole, the two-man cast under Marylynne Anderson-Cooper’s direction storm away with this intense aspect of the eighty-minute, interval-less play.
The actors excel at flicking from accent to accent, and darting from scene to scene. It’s certainly a feat of acting – and Wall gives a particularly exceptional performance in a scene involving a secret gathering of flamboyant gay men (despite some of the characterisation verging towards stereotype). The actors skilfully dip into a clothes rail to grab the props that signal distinct characters, from a police officer to a clergyman to gay individuals to the judiciary.
All very impressive – but for a depiction of an agonising chapter in gay rights, the stage felt too devoid of real emotion. While Warren flat-out refuses to let his competitor get even a glimpse of his feelings towards the homosexuals who fell for this cruel ploy, Brown becomes more and more uneasy with the improvisations.
For this mask slippage Warren casts endless criticism on Brown, accusing him of failing in the challenge. ‘An actor must never allow anyone to see behind his theatrical disguise,’ Warren says, and seeks to conceal his own identity at all times. But the result is that we never really get to know any of the many characters, which is a level of pretence too far for this narrative.
This UK premiere of The Twentieth Century Way is intelligent, but coolly so. Both script and acting are deft, yet I left feeling a bit empty and a bit lost. But maybe that’s the point.
The Twentieth Century Way is on until 28th January 2017 at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Click here for more details.