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The Actors' Vice

All the world's a stage.
PHOTO BY ED KRIEGER

"Senator Larry Craig isn't a homosexual. He just plays one in bathrooms." Such is the mockery that circulated on the web after the 2007 arrest for lewd conduct of the Republican senator from Idaho, after, he says, he was "entrapped" in a Minneapolis airport restroom. He responded to a foot-tapping dance between stalls, which is code for a pickup.

"Playing gay" lies at the heart of Tom Jacobson's scintillating new play, which just opened at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena. It's not so prosaically topical as to pluck its theme from contemporary newspaper headlines. Rather, it harvests its ideas from newspaper headlines from the prior century: snippets from the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee of 1914, about some high-society Long Beach gents who had been similarly cuffed in a sting operation, their lives similarly ruined. (At this time in California, sodomy was a felony, fellatio not, but it could be prosecuted as misdemeanor "social vagrancy," a status- and soul-destroying charge nonetheless). The remove of a century gives the play a certain exoticism and the perspective of distance, the amber glow of antiquity, or, to be less romantic, of newspapers yellowed with age.

This mercifully strips away the distractions of sexual politics and political sexuality: The conundrums of being Republican and gay, and the issues of closeting erotic desires, are largely besides Jacobson's point, which is the playing — and playing out — of sexual proclivities.

At the heart of The Twentieth Century Way is a historical footnote: In 1914, personal hygiene was a comparatively recent trend, as the links between disease, germs and dirt became more clearly understood. And with that, quite coincidentally, came the invention of the zipper, replacing the button-down fly and aiding and abetting quick getaways from compromising situations. This combination of developments not so coincidentally also led to a rising trend of fellatio in public places and — according to Jacobson — its euphemism, the Twentieth Century Way.

In that year, 1914, a pair of actors, "one handsome, one pretty," came to Los Angeles, searching for work. We first meet them in a theater, decorated in Nick Santiago's set design with a nouveau proscenium arch and a costume rack. The two actors, played here with considerable style by Robert Mammana (the handsome one, Warren) and Will Bradley (the pretty one, Brown), will be grabbing costume pieces for the multitude of characters they're about to jump in and out of, with turn-on-a-dime precision.

They have arrived for an audition, or so it seems — as they spout clever, almost arch dialogue, the exact purpose of their being there remains shrouded in intrigue for some time. Under Michael Michetti's expert direction, the exact era they're living in is similarly ambiguous.

Both are clearly trained actors. They quip about Constantine Stanislavsky (the Russian acting teacher/director, whose theories of how to fake reality more realistically are now enshrined in American acting technique), as well of the comparatively hammy 19th-century Delsarte System of Expression, where a bold, external gesture accompanies and gives expression to an internal emotion.

The premise, hanging on by a thread to credibility, is that they will perform an improvisation, which will reveal the better actor. The lesser actor will yield to the better actor the coveted role for which they're auditioning. And so they launch into an improv about entrapping suspected homosexuals, variously playing the decoys and their prey, as well as a journalist and a particularly fixated editor from the Sacramento Bee. And when newspaper clippings start showing up as props, it's clear that their playacting has a reach far beyond that dated proscenium arch. Which is to say, the lines between improvisation and reality are purposefully blurred — and even harder to describe here.

In 1914, though it may as well have been 1950 or 1970, the two actors had the idea of entrapping homosexuals for pay, and offered their services to the Los Angeles Police Department, which rebuffed them. Not so the Long Beach Police Department, where there was a stronger impulse to keep the community "clean." In Jacobson's play, a crisis of sorts emerges, as Warren and Brown needle each other about their own sexual identity, as well as about the morality of entrapment. Do they not then become gay, in that moment, or are they, as the websites joked about Larry Craig, merely pretending to be?

Here Jacobson locks arms with Shakespeare: We're all actors playing our parts, after all. How can love endure when one's identity is constantly shifting? Such is the actor's plight. The play is ultimately about love, compassion and our dubious capacities for either in a world that keeps striking out against both, in the somewhat hypocritical name of morality.

Before his fall, a suspect — a florist from Minnesota — answers the question of whether he believes in love: "Well, we have to, don't we? Or what's the point of living? Nothing lasts, even mountains crumble to dust, and someday the ocean will be a desert. And what we do in our lives, no matter how many stunning floral tributes I arrange, no matter how many motion pictures you star in, the flowers quickly wither and celluloid deterioriates — I've heard it can even spontaneously combust! So all we have is the moment, and the moment does not last. All we can do is fill that moment with love."

Tom Jacobson is a particularly erudite and clever Los Angeles playwright who has written about an American whaler stumbling into the French Revolution (Sperm); a quartet of American tourists caught in a Twilight Zone–ish hiccup of time while on vacation in Italy (Ouroboros); and a man who after a lengthy sojourn eventually wanders into a scene of Romeo and Juliet after learning to his dismay that he's merely a fiction invented by Oscar Wilde (Bunburry). That's just a sampling.

The Twentieth Century Way is the first Jacobson play I'm aware of that has only two characters, suggesting that he and his agent are aiming for off-Broadway. (It was recently announced that The Twentieth Century Way has been invited to the New York International Fringe Festival, and new plays with five or more characters are now generally regarded as too expensive to produce in New York.)

New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood just wrote of the explosion of rich, two-character plays (obviously devised for economic reasons), and The Twentieth Century Way would certainly qualify as rich. Yet something has been reduced from Jacobson's earlier works, and that reduction may ironically be the key to the popular success of this play.

Ironically, in a very clever play about playing, what's missing are the larger resonances of playfulness: The quirk in Ouroboros, in which one touring couple is moving forward in time across Italy while another is moving backward, and the fact that they can only fully comprehend their situation when they meet in the middle, is the stuff of gentle farce. Or Bunburry having to deal, outraged, with his status as somebody else's fiction.

In The Twentieth Century Way, Jacobson snips the strings of the puppeteer in order to pen a history play about the essence of love. Though there's plenty in this work about multiple realities via allusions to acting, the ultimate reality is comparatively grounded, rendering Jacobson's flights of fancy less original. This is a small play from a great mind, which is nothing to sneeze at.

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY WAY | By TOM JACOBSON | Presented by the BOSTON COURT THEATER, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 6 | (626) 683-6883