Tom Jacobson’s Twentieth Century Way tackles a fascinating, albeit horrific, moment within LGBT history, but wraps everything within a slightly unnecessary conceit. The play ambitiously tries to make a lot of points about a lot of things, and its cleverness backfires slightly.
Focusing on a particularly unpleasant form of entrapment prevalent in 1914 California, Tom Jacobson’s The Twentieth Century Way is rife with both academic research and (meta)theatrical ideas. So rife at times though, that it works to its detriment. There’s a lot going on – unfortunate because it’s clearly well-meaning – but I left feeling it was trying to say too much about too much. Give me a minute to set the scene, and then I’ll explain.
In a nutshell, the 80-minute play explores a particularly depressing era of LGBT history: the Long Beach police force’s ‘innovative’ means of identifying and arresting gay men in the early 20th century. The department offered actors $15 a pop to win over the trust and confidence of homosexuals, seduce them into the bedroom/public toilets and facilitate situations – in particular, signalling for a Twentieth Century Way (contemporary euphemism for a blowjob) – when these men would accept the invitation and be irrefutably ‘caught in the act’.
It’s obviously rich and engaging, albeit horrific, material – and, amazingly perhaps, relatively unexplored onstage (I’ve not seen or read anything about it before, anyway). It’s so interesting actually that it deserves to be explored in an otherwise uncomplicated play. I’d had left more content if it had given everything over to doing the remarkable facts justice, and bringing to life the ‘drama’ inherent in the surreptitious lives of both the victims and instigators.
That’s unfortunately not just what you get here: whilst smart (and knowingly so), the writing is a little too ambitious for its own good. We are presented with the above, but its effect is deadened slightly by the conceit that Jacobson wraps everything up in. The story’s framed around two actors queueing for an audition – so, intertwined with the documentary-theatre-esque themes, are metatheatrical musings about the philosophies and nature(s) of ‘acting’. The Twentieth Century Way seems desperate to explore types of guises we knowingly wear to deceive others, and those we unknowingly wear to deceive ourselves, which I can understand – because it’s presumably meant to mirror the guises gay men of the time had to adopt to stay safe. But the conceit slightly runs away with itself, or becomes the focus of the piece rather than a secondary comment. And it doesn’t seem the right way round for me.
The content aside, the production is slick and assured. It’s a bizarre little theatre, definitely with character but not with a huge amount of instant charm to me at least. The design is stark but it works, and the two performances are confident and highly watchable. I assume it’s a showcase performance; the play’s a pretty ideal two-hander to be able to exhibit apt multi-roling, and that, they both do. The ending is perhaps less impactful than Jacobson intended to be, due to a lack of real chemistry between the two men, but they manage to sustain stoic momentum in complex, often hyper-intellectual, material and should be commended for that.