By Jordan Wright
There’s nothing like the sound of a collective gasp from the audience when the curtain draws back to reveal a dazzling stage set.
“20th Century” set co-designers John Downing and Bill Glikbarg achieved this stunner after months of studying historic photographs of the 20th Century Limited, dubbed “The Most Famous Train in the World.”
Their construction consists of three railroad cars decorated with Art Deco-period furnishings in cool pearl-gray tones. The set moves on hidden pulleys as the action shifts wildly from private berths to a sitting car. Scrims inserted into the back windows of the cars allow the audience to catch sight of the passengers as they race back and forth in pursuit of each other — be it out of greed, lust or retribution.
For Roland Branford Gomez, directing Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of “20th Century” was a trip down memory lane. Not only had he ridden on the iconic train as a child actor, but he also met and befriended a fellow dance studio student he came to care for.
Mary was the daughter of one of the play’s authors, Charles MacArthur and his lovely wife Helen Hayes, the “First Lady of the American Theatre.” The parents frequently took the children to matinees in New York, and so for Gomez, it was a dream come full circle to direct this play for his adored playmate, who died at the age of 19.
Meet Oscar Jaffe, a producer with three recent flops, buckets of bombast and a burning desire to get back in the game. Lily Garland is his muse — a glamorous actress flush off an Academy Award and eager to return to the stage. Along with their respective press agents, a cheating husband and his paramour, and an escaped mental patient, they are all on the train to New York City.
In between stations, they serve up comedy, farce and whodunit in this delightful comic stew. And for that we should be grateful.
David James plays failed producer Jaffe with an over-the-top flamboyance of zany, outlandish physical comedy that often out-emotes the rest of the cast. James plays Jaffe to the hilt as “The Wizard of Broadway.” Margaret Bush, as Jaffe’s former lover Garland, delivers in fine fashion, but — as with the other terrific cast members — she is often overshadowed by James.
Heather Norcross, as the coy sex kitten Anita Highland, and Michael Gerwin, as the adulterous Dr. Grover Lockwood, make the most of their small roles, as does Kathy Fannon as Ida Webb, Jaffe’s assistant. And Gary Cramer does high anxiety to a “T” as the Bible-thumping, neurotic pill salesman Matthew Clark, who convinces Jaffe that he will underwrite his new play. I couldn’t get enough of their quirky, well-crafted characters.
The second act picks up nicely when Max Jacobs, Jaffe’s rival for Lily, shows up on the train to thwart Jaffe and offer her a contract. That’s when Bob Cohen strides onstage and nearly steals the show with his portrait of the big-time New York producer with a heart of steel.
Sound designer David Correia does a bang-up job of recreating the glorious rumble and screech of a train streaking down the tracks. But, like a train that slows when it pulls into the station and speeds up to its next destination, this production has its fits and starts, moments of brilliance and periods of static, still with plenty of high jinks and snappy repartee to go around.
“20th Century” runs through June 29 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St. For tickets and information, call the box office at 703-683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com.