If the press splashed the story behind The Twentieth Century Way today there would be a scandal of global proportions.
So it’s shocking to discover that Tom Jacobson’s play is factually based on a dark period in US law enforcement. A century ago a police department employed two actors to entrap gay men committing “social vagrancy” at a time when some acts between same sex couples were illegal in California.
Their unscrupulous actions snared dozens of men, some of who committed suicide because of the shame of a public trial.
It is a shocking story and one which deserves greater exposure. Jacobson’s play, The Twentieth Century Way, goes some way to highlighting the scandal but fights shy of giving the issue any real muscle.
The two-hander opened this week at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre with director Marylynne Anderson-Cooper creating more an ambitious novelty piece rather than a hard-hitting, socially important drama.
It was described in its publicity as a tragi-comedy which is a bit of a misnomer. There are lines which will make you smirk, rather than laugh out loud, and the tragedy comes more from its controversial theme.
But its jocular style deflects from what could have been a more relevant attack on homophobia and bigotry in a USA about to swear in one of its most contentious and outspoken presidents.
James Sindall and Fraser Wall play a couple of actors who arrive at a venue for an audition – at least they think they have.
You’re never quite sure about Sindall’s enigmatic, deadpan Warren. Is he there to audition – or to vet Wall’s Mr Brown for an undercover job that is in the pipeline? Is he even an actor?
Over the course of the next hour or so the pair swap characters, with the aid of a rack of on-stage props, to play a variety of gay men that are straight out of central casting.
With the flick of a cigarette holder or silk scarf we meet a florist, fairies in kimonos, a queer priest, outré foreign types and camp queens. Every box is ticked, pandering to popularist stereotypes.
They become the targets of Warren and Brown, employed as “vice specialists,” who prey on suspected gay men in bathhouses, public toilets and, in one case a private home being used as a private members club.
Once a man has been identified he is lured, entrapped – and then, in the moment, daubed with an indelible marker pen to confirm his sexual orientation.
Sindall’s Warren, with his cold, unemotional voice (very Agent Smith from The Matrix) and demeanour, rampages through the Long Beach closet gay community in a crusade to stamp out immoral and unnatural practices.
He repeatedly tells Brown that he has no conscience or concern with the repercussions of their work because, as an actor he is playing a role.
Wall’s Brown (think Christian Slater) wears his heart on his sleeve, unable to hide his disgust at the underhand trickery, reluctant to play his part.
Both men seamlessly switch characters, often in mid sentence, to create a very real ensemble of vulnerable, colourful and complex men who, back in 1914, found it impossible to openly acknowledge their sexuality.
The Twentieth Century Way is thought provoking but the story’s impact is diminished by its own inventiveness. Running at Jermyn Street Theatre until January 28.
- The Twentieth Century Way
James Sindall & Fraser Wall specialise in vice to entrap gay men in Tom Jacobson’s The Twentieth Century Way. It is thought provoking but the story’s impact is diminished by its own inventiveness.