Review: Blank Theatre’s On the Twentieth Century Never Reaches Full Steam

The new production of On the Twentieth Century by Blank Theatre Company, directed by Danny Kapinos, is the latest incarnation of many fabulous versions of this story—on stage and screen. Sadly, this new version doesn't reach the comedy or screwball levels of its predecessors.

First, there was the train itself. The New York Central Railroad's 20th Century Limited was the Concorde of its day—shrinking the distance between New York's Grand Central and Chicago's LaSalle Street stations to a mere 16 hours. And doing it all in high-style: the phrase "red carpet" originates with the luxe walkway passengers traversed to board the steamer.

Next came the movie. Howard Hawk's madcap pre-Code Twentieth Century, which gave John Barrymore one of his last great roles, propelled Carole Lombard to super-stardom and—together with Capra's It Happened One Night—launched what may be mid-century Hollywood's greatest genres: the screwball comedy.

And then, in 1978, Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green set it all to music. The Tony-winning On the Twentieth Century was a dizzy propulsive delight made incandescent by Madeline Kahn's Broadway debut (in a performance so exhausting that she famously left the production early and was replaced by her understudy Judy Kaye, who in turn was made a star by the role—that's an old Broadway story itself).

Karylin Veres and the cast of On the Twentieth Century. Photo by Kelsey Decker/Wannabe Studio.

And what a batty story this show has: a desperate Broadway producer frantically scheming to stay atop after one too many flops... his former protege, now a Hollywood star, who has had enough of his Svengali treatment... a pair of beleaguered yes-men, scrambling to stay one step ahead... and, as the show itself puts in, a "religious nut" as an erstwhile Broadway angel, stirring the mix to a bubbling froth. And all trapped together in a non-stop train speeding its way to New York City.

What a recipe for a delicious farce! Except when it isn't.

The trick with screwball comedy and farce is that they need to be concocted by an expert hand. A little too much of this, or not enough of that and the whole souffle goes flat. And that—i am very sorry to say—is what happens with Blank Theatre Company's current production.

I am a big fan of the little non-Equity company. Two of their most recent productions (last winter's Promises, Promises and last year's She Loves Me) represent some of the very best of Chicago theater. But not this time. Neither of the show's leads—Max DeTogne as Oscar Jaffe and Karylin Veres as Lily Garland—approach their roles with sufficient brio. They both sing well, but fail to fully act their songs. And this is a show that requires a healthy dose of even overacting from the two leads; both are roles best served with a healthy slice of ham. Watch the 1934 movie, or listen to the cast albums of the original show or its (perhaps even better) 2015 revival starring Peter Gallagher and Kristin Chenoweth to see what I mean.

Dustin Rothbart, Alicia Berneche, Maxwell J Detogne. Photo by Kelsey Decker/Wannabe Studio.

Together with lackluster choreography (the underwhelming second act opening tap dance, "Life Is Like a Train"), the performances are distinctly underseasoned. With one notable, delightful, amazing exception: Alicia Berneche as "religious nut" Letitia Peabody Primrose.

To say that Berneche steals the show is an understatement. Her first act show stopper, "Dirty Deeds Going On," is a jaw-dropping display of comedic genius; she bends the words and music of the song to serve her considerable talent. It's no surprise that she is an accomplished opera singer; she delivers an absolute aria of laughs.

The play's creative team is made up of Aaron Kaplan as music director and Jen Cupani as choreographer. Rose Johnson handles scenic design, with lighting by Elle Humphrys and costumes by Cindy Moon. Kyle Aschbrenner is stage manager.

Blank Theatre's On the Twentieth Century runs through June 9 at the Bramble Arts Loft, 5545 N Clark St. The performance lasts two and a half hours, with a 15 minute intermission. Tickets are available at www.blanktheatrecompany.org.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Doug Mose

Doug Mose grew up on a farm in western Illinois, and moved to the big city to go to grad school. He lives with his husband Jim in Printers Row. When he’s not writing for Third Coast Review, Doug works as a business writer.