During the 100 minutes of THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY WAY, Tom Jacobson tries with limited success to juggle three themes. The play begins with two actors waiting to audition for the role of a con man in a film. Or are they? The program says that the play takes place in "A Theater" and these two actors may only be pretending -- improvising -- the audition. Mr. Jacobson obviously loves Pirandello and the actors occasionally acknowledge us in the audience. One theme in this play is that of "acting" -- performing roles without feeling them -- and living -- feeling -- which is improvising. In life, are we merely actors? The older and more forceful of the actors talks the younger man into a series of improvisations. The one who takes control of the improvisations will stay and audition. The other will leave. This plot device doesn't seem the least bit credible; nor does it seem credible that these two actors would improvise police entrapment of gay men in Los Angeles in 1914. The premisses of this play take a lot of willing suspension of disbelief. The men then improvise a series of entrapments of well-connected gay men. The entrapment, of course, is a form of acting -- Acting Gay, to coin the title of one of my books. The men are also using these improvisations as a kind of mutual seduction. Can these men really feel enough empathy to experience attraction and love? The men the police entrap are decent people looking for real human connection, as opposed to the playacting of the actors/policemen, but things only got worse for gay men when anti-sodomy laws were enacted in 1915.
Jacobson has obviously done his research into gay history. According to his play, new levels of cleanliness and more circumcision led to more oral sex, "the twentieth-century way," which led the police to devise means of entrapment. The number of men caught led politicians to enact Draconian anti-sodomy laws. Those of us who study such things know that police entrapment of gay men still took place into the 1960s. When the men in Jacobson's play were arrested, they weren't breaking an existing law, so were charged with "social vagrancy."
I can see how Jacobson got attracted to the acting metaphor as he looked for ways to dramatize police entrapment. However, there are just too many theatrical metaphors embedded in this piece of metatheatre. The two fine actors, Will Bradley and Robert Mammana, work hard to bring the play to life, but the only real characters they play that elicit any feeling are the victims of entrapment. The two actors they play throughout are devices, not characters. Michael Michetti has staged the play effectively.
I have written a lot of plays that dramatize gay history and was looking forward to this one. A disappointment, I'm afraid.
THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY WAY. Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. June 1, 2015.