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THEATER REVIEW

Keep the comedy running on time

International City Theatre makes the repartee snappy in an enjoyable adaptation of `Twentieth Century.'

September 04, 2006|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

Theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe, the central character in the reworked 1930s comedy "Twentieth Century," is given to such pronouncements as: "Wait! I have an idea. No, not just an idea -- an inspiration!" In such moments, his staff holds its breath, because the idea might be truly brilliant, or it might be like the time he staged "Carmen." "You insisted on putting a real bull on stage," his general manager, Ida Webb, reminds him. "He was a magnificent animal," Jaffe remembers. "He fell into the orchestra pit!" Webb replies.

Such snappy lines -- and the images they conjure -- account for much of the fun in International City Theatre's presentation of Ken Ludwig's adaptation of this play by the "Front Page" team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Friday's opening performance lacked some hard-to-pinpoint yet vital element that would have transformed it from grin-getter to guffaw-inducer. But with a staging this clever and performances this zesty, the show might yet develop that energy as performances progress.

The high jinks take place in 1933 aboard the 20th Century Limited, headed from Chicago to New York. Tom Buderwitz's design appears to slice open the train to reveal its Art Deco interior, outfitted with sleek, bent-chrome furnishings.

Jaffe and his team can ill afford these luxurious surroundings. He's had three flops in a row and is about to lose everything. You'd never know it to look at him, though. Dressed to the nines in double-breasted suit and long, dramatic silk scarf, Jaffe, as played by Jeff Griggs, is a one-man traveling theatrical production. With his body at an angle, limbs artfully posed and head tilted just so, he speaks in rich, ringing tones -- his every utterance a three-act drama of self-importance.

He has a plan, of course. One of his former stars, Lily Garland, is scheduled to be aboard the train. Her name on a contract could be his salvation.

She's an angry ex-lover, which could pose a problem, but she's also just like Jaffe, which means there's hope they'll find their way back together. Libby West portrays her as someone who approaches life as a perpetual melodrama, to be performed in booming voice and splendid gestures. Costume designer Shon LeBlanc dresses her in amusing variations of leopard print.

Griggs and West are nicely framed by Eileen T'Kaye's portrayal of the general manager, who is Jaffe's Rock of Gibraltar on two tiny legs, and Tom Shelton as Jaffe's W.C. Fields of a press agent -- inebriated and in-your-face yet fairly harmless.

In staging the play, Jules Aaron uses underscoring, written by Max Kinberg, to accent certain scenes. It's an amusing touch. Middle Eastern strains are heard while Jaffe conjures a biblical epic out of thin air; violins accompany his last-ditch effort to gain Garland's sympathy.

There's a lot to be enjoyed in this 2003 adaptation of a scenario enduring enough to have inspired a 1934 movie and 1978 musical. Here's hoping the Long Beach production achieves its Jaffe-like dreams of greatness.

*

daryl.miller@latimes.com

*

`Twentieth Century'

Where: International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 1

Price: $32 to $42

Contact: (562) 436-4610 or www.ictlongbeach.org

Running time: 2 hours

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