Theatre Albany goes on comedy ride on the ‘Twentieth Century’

May 29, 2015

By Jim Hendricks, Albany Herald

ALBANY — Theatre Albany’s cast is climbing aboard the “Twentieth Century” passenger train in a rapid-fire comedy that will feature two leads who haven’t shared the stage together since, well, the 20th century.

When the curtain goes up Friday night for the first of seven performances, Doug Lorber and Dotty Davis will headline a cast that navigates comedy, complications and compartments while riding the 20th Century Ltd. from Chicago to New York City.

Lorber’s floundering Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe hopes to persuade his discovery, ex-wife and now big-name actress Lily Garland (Davis), to perform in his upcoming production and save his career in a wild ride that includes a doctor caught having an affair and dodging everything from debt to a religious fanatic touting his latest work.

Oscar Jaffe (Doug Lorber, in chair) isn't above faking a deadly illness to get former wife and protege Lily Garland (Dotty Davis, at his side), now a big Hollywood star, to save his stage production company. From left, Stephen Syfrett, Brannon White, Kelly Mullins, Gary Unger and Leigh Ann Young also star in Theatre Albany's production "Twentieth Century." (Staff photo: Jim Hendricks)

#“I’ve been wanting to do this show for a long time,” Theatre Albany Director Mark Costello said immediately before a rehearsal last week. Costello said he saw the musical version — titled “On the Twentieth Century” — in New York. “This is the comedy, not the musical,” he said.

“It will be funny and it’s very fast-paced,” Davis said. “It’ll bring back a lot of memories for the older generation. And for the new generation, there’s a lot of slapstick and door-slamming, modernizing of jokes. It’ll be fun for them, too.”

Lorber and Davis said they were happy to share the stage again at Theatre Albany. While both have been active in the Albany theater, they haven’t acted together since the 1990s. Unlike their characters, the actors said they get along well.

“I haven’t done a show with her (Davis) since we did ‘Noises Off,’” Lorber said. “It’s great to be working with her again. She’s just a dream to work with.”

“We’ve worked together, but we haven’t been on stage together in probably 20 years,” Davis said. “And that’s another thing that’s a lot of fun. Working with Doug Lorber is so easy. … He’s very giving, he’s very funny. He understands the timing of this type of comedy.”

And there should be plenty to laugh at. Costello notes that the show is a “quick-moving” one. It was adpted by Ken Ludwig from the original written by the team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who may be best known for “The Front Page.” Like “The Front Page,” “Twentieth Century” has biting, quick-paced humor. Hecht and MacArthur based their play on an unproduced play titled “Napoleon of Broadway” by Charles B. Millholland, who was inspired by his work with eccentric and difficult Broadway producer David Belasco.

“It’s said that Oscar Jaffe is based on David Belasco,” Costello said.

Lily Garland (Dotty Davis, left) makes a dramatic point as play producer Oscar Jaffe's assistants, Owen O'Malley (Brannon White) and Ida Webb (Kelly Mullins), exchange knowing glances in a rehearsal scene from Theatre Albany's production of "Twentieth Century." (Staff photo: Jim Hendricks)

In the play, Jaffe is pompous, egomaniacal and on the run from debt, heading back to the Big Apple following the latest in his string of failures, this one in Chicago. “Oscar Jaffe has produced 68 plays on Broadway,” Lorber said. “He, himself, is an actor as well as a big-time producer. And the whole premise of this thing is he’s had three flops in a row, his last being ‘Joan of Arc.’ He needs something to get his game back on.

“He knows that his ex-wife who had been his star — they’d done eight shows together, she bolted for Hollywood — and now he needs her back. He found she was going to be on this train and he gets on the train … not only to get her into the show, but to get her back.”

Garland has become a temperamental Hollywood actress who wants nothing to do with Jaffe’s production. “She’s very naive and not very smart,” Costello said. “She arrives on the train with her current lover (George Smith, played by Kevin Armstrong), who’s much younger.”

Davis said the big screen provided some inspiration for her interpretation of Garland — the late Madeline Kahn, who also played Garland for just under two months in the 1978 musical version “On the Twentieth Century” on Broadway.

“This (Garland) is Madeline Kahn in ‘Blazing Saddles,’ in ‘Young Frankenstein,’ in anything she’s ever done for Mel Brooks,” Davis said. “It is hilarious. She’s way over the top, very colorful, very self-centered. … It’s been such great fun.”

Lorber said the bombastic Jaffe called to mind a certain late-night comedian.

“It’s (the play’s) really fast. Some of it’s a little melodramatic because they are (he stretches out the word)act-ors. You always think of Jon Lovitz on ‘Saturday night Live’: ‘I am an act-or!’

“But it’s really intelligent,” he said, quipping, “so this isn’t type-casting by any means.”

In addition to some fast-paced dialogue, there’s a lot of movement. “When one door opens, another door closes. There’s three compartments on the train (in the scenes),” Lorber said. “There are lots of doors. It’s like one of those British comedies.”

Asked whether that caused problems remembering which door to enter, Lorber said the bigger concern was “not to get hit by one as they’re (members in the cast) coming through.”

“Twentieth Century” first came to the Broadway stage in 1932 — four years after “The Front Page” — and was adapted by Hecht and MacArthur for a movie released in 1934 that featured John Barrymore and Carole Lombard as Jaffe and Garland.

The stage play was revived in 1950 with Jose Ferrer directing and playing Jaffe, and Gloria Swanson playing Garland. A second revival came in 2004, with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche, who received a Tony nomination, in the lead roles.

Joining Davis, Lorber and Armstrong in the cast are Brannon White as Owen O’Malley and Kelly Mullins as Ida Webb, Jaffe’s assistants; Glenn White as religious fanatic Matthew Clark; Stephen Syfrett as Dr. Grover Lockwood and Leigh Ann Young as his lover Anita Highland; Gary Unger as the conductor; Keon Perkins as the porter; Jamie Green as the detective; Skylar Glass and Leah Anglin as reporters, and Costello, who is directing, as rival play producer Max Jacobs.

The curtain for “Twentieth Century,” which wraps up Theatre Albany’s 2014-15 season, goes up at 8 p.m. Friday at the theater, 514 Pine Ave. The remainder of the performance schedule is 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. May 31, 8 p.m. June 4-6, and 2:30 p.m. June 7. Tickets, which go on sale Tuesday to the public, are $20, adult; $15, senior, and $10, student and active military. The box office is open noon-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon-2 p.m. on performance Saturdays and one hour before curtain. Contact the box office at (229) 439-7141.

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