A ride On the Twentieth Century is a hilarious, silly, and enjoyable trip

Photo by Kelsey Decker/Wannabe Studio

Quietly, and in several different venues, over the last few years Blank Theatre Company has gained a deserved reputation as one of Chicago’s most reliable and creative small producers of plays and musicals. Now, in the new Bramble Arts Loft, Blank may have finally found a venue that suits them perfectly and will allow them to grow. And their newest production, On the Twentieth Century, absolutely shines as it showcases the considerable talents of everyone involved.

The show takes place in the 1930s aboard a Chicago to New York train (the Twentieth Century of the title) and features many clever songs by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Cy Coleman. Comden introduces us to a once-successful Broadway director and the now-successful actress he discovered who has come to loathe him. Of course, this being a romantic comedy, the two find themselves together on a cross-country train (along with the actor with whom she has recently been romantically paired), and, as the cliché goes, hijinks ensue.

Maxwell J. DeTogne plays producer/director Oscar Jaffe, who once was the toast of Broadway but now, after a string of flops, faces the prospect of losing his theatre entirely. Jaffe is a self-centered man, unable even to see the lengths to which his two loyal aids, Owen and Oliver, are willing to go on his behalf. Indeed, this character trait is what cost him his relationship (both professional and personal) with Karylin Veres’ Lily Garland. In flashbacks, we see how he found her—she was a pianist for an unsuccessful auditioner—and turned her into a star. Director Danny Kapinos and choreographer Jen Cupani (along with costume designer Cindy Moon) absolutely go to town on the ensuing song, “Veronique,” introducing the role that jump-started Lily’s career, which has now (after an acrimonious split from Jaffe) made her a star in Hollywood. His last-gasp hope to save his own career now involves getting her not only to forgive him but to sign on as the star of an as yet unwritten musical about Mary Magdelene…and to steal her away from her co-star/lover, Christopher Johnson’s hunky Bruce Granit. All in sixteen hours.

Not too much to ask.

Along the way, we also meet a plethora of people who “have written a play” they’d love for Jaffe to read as well as Letitia Primrose (Alicia Berneche), who is introduced as a pious—and very wealthy—patron of the arts. (Berneche steals the show with her song, “Repent.”) We also see into the minds of the three main characters of the triangle through clever staging of songs like “Our Private World” and “Mine”; this is not a play that even tries to hide its intentions. We also meet Jaffe’s personal demon, a former assistant stage manager who has risen to even greater heights than Jaffe has fallen from. Like everyone else here, Shea Hopkins’ Max Jacobs—who takes a plane to meet the train because he wants to sign Lily to star in a Somerset Maugham-written new show—is a caricature rather than a fleshed-out human being, and Moon’s costuming is as deep as his character runs. But, like every other member of this cast, his performance and voice are impeccable. (And what voices are here! Musical director Aaron Kaplan had a wealth of talent to work with.)

Kapinos and Cupani have a joyous time staging the various elements of this silliness. Cupani even has ensemble members literally bring portfolio-sized platforms onto the stage to create surfaces to stage a tap number—surfaces they constantly move around like kaleidoscopic patterns on the floor beneath their feet. Indeed, it is this kind of supremely goofy fun that forms the center of the play. Its songs are good but mostly not showstoppers. Its characters, other than perhaps Dustin Rothbart’s Owen and Nick Arceo’s Oliver (both put-upon by Jaffe) are not designed to elicit audience empathy. Its plot is so contrived that even the final piece, which brings Jaffe and Lily together, feels like an underwritten afterthought that leaves us no reason to believe they will stay that way this time. And yet this play manages to feel warm and joyful every step of the way.

On the Twentieth Century is, basically, a farce. It is a supremely nonsensical play designed to make audiences laugh and highlight the excellent voices of its cast, and this production does both. With Kapinos’ gifted direction (which doesn’t miss any opportunity to sparkle and surprise), Blank Theatre inaugurates this handsome and versatile new artistic space with panache. I’m looking forward to seeing much more of them here.

On the Twentieth Century is presented by Blank Theatre and is now playing at Bramble Arts Loft, 5455 N. Clark, until June 9. Performance times vary; check the website at blanktheatrecompany.org. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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