Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Dennis Proulx and Brenda Lee Hillebrenner star in an uneven production of "Twentieth Century."

Latest DHT play
ultimately derails

HIGH-SPEED passenger trains were the epitome of luxurious cross-country travel from the dawn of the 20th century through the end of World War II. None of them offered a higher level of service, dependability, speed and glamour than the 20th Century Limited between New York City and Chicago. Passengers paid a surcharge to travel at more than 80 mph and make the journey in 20 hours or less.

"Twentieth Century," presented by Diamond Head Theatre, continues at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 4 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 27. Tickets are $12 to $42. Call 733-0274.

Diamond Head Theatre's production of "Twentieth Century" only seems to take that long to reach its destination, but a noticeable number of "passengers" elected to disembark at intermission during the opening-night run on Friday.

Co-directors James MacArthur and Bill Ogilvie make the most of a trio of talented comic actors -- Dennis Proulx, Tom Holowach and David C. Farmer -- and add a fine counterpoint with the deftly understated work of Earll Kingston, but they never give the audience a reason to care what happens to any of the passengers on this sluggish journey to ennui.

Bombastic Oscar Jaffe (Proulx), an unethical Broadway impresario, is facing bankruptcy unless his much-abused minions, Oliver Webb (Holowach) and Owen O'Malley (Farmer), can persuade his ex-lover, actress Lily Garland (Brenda Lee Hillebrenner) to star in his next show. Lily is now an Academy Award-winning film star, and since she and Oscar parted on bad terms, his chances are between slim and none. His back to the wall, Oscar learns that Lily is returning to New York on the 20th Century and books the adjoining compartment.

Other passengers include the mysterious Mr. Clark (Kingston), two bizarre unemployed German actors (Jim Hesse and Ricky P. Galius), Lily's petulant boy toy (Gene DeFrancis) and a doctor (Barbara Kaneshiro) who wants Oscar to read her script.

The clichˇ "chews the scenery" has never seemed more appropriate than in describing the masterful work of Proulx, Holowach and Farmer as the comic stars. They don't have a lot to work with, but work it beautifully, and are well-cast physically as well. Farmer, playing the lowest-ranking of the three blowhards, is also the smallest in physical terms, and seems to shrink into himself when confronted by Holowach, the mid-sized of the three, or Proulx, the most massive. Holowach likewise appears to shrink when Proulx berates him.

What's lacking, perhaps in this version of the script, perhaps in the directors' take on it, is any reason to care whether this abrasive man will save his theater. Nor is it ever clear why O'Malley and Webb put up with his abuse. O'Malley is fired in one scene and is back at work in another with no explanation.

It's the same problem when Lily fires her maid. The woman responds with all the emotion of a weary robot and is back on the job a scene or two later.

Kingston stands out with his nicely underplayed portrayal of the conservative Christian millionaire who agrees to bankroll Oscar's next show, but only if it meets his religious standards. Kingston's work in the scene in which Mr. Clark meets an actress is particularly well-played.

Richard Aadland adds a bright burst of warmth and sincerity when he arrives late in Act II as Max Jacobs, Oscar's one-time employee and now bitter rival. John Hunt adds an appropriate sense of authority and dignity as the conductor.

Beyond that, it's slim pickings. The ride isn't particularly funny, nor is it emotionally engaging drama. Hillebrenner plays Lily as a two-dimensional stereotypical diva whose attractiveness to men remains unfathomable, beyond the fact that the plot requires it.

On the other hand, at least Hillebrenner's romantic kissy-face moments with DeFrances look natural. The early grappling of another couple, an adulterous businessman and his companion, appears neither "real" nor comical -- more like the performance of two luckless teenage acting students who can't stand each other but are forced to play "lovers" by a sadistic drama teacher.

Given several performers' flat delivery, which drains the emotion from potentially humorous moments, it's possible that a remedial acting class might do some of these people good.

"Twentieth Century" has been a success in many formats -- stage, film, radio, television, and as a stage musical -- since the original play debuted in 1932. This production, however, is a few Pullman cars and a locomotive short of the engaging vehicle it should be.

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