Out of Steam

No laugh track: Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche in Century.Photo: Joan Marcus

As play, movie, or musical, Twentieth Century has never failed to delight—at least not until its 21st-century adaptation by Ken Ludwig. Aside from a few lumbering Ludwigisms, it is hard to determine just what Ludwig contributed to the dazzling Ben Hecht–Charles MacArthur original or, more important, why such adapting was deemed necessary in the first place.

Laughs do remain in the Roundabout revival, but they have to struggle past two serious obstacles—the leads: Alec Baldwin as the Machiavellian theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe, and Anne Heche as his tempestuous leading lady and sparring partner, Lily Garland. Though others have given sterling performances in these roles, the movie’s John Barrymore and Carole Lombard have proved templates for them: Their memories must be successfully resuscitated or brilliantly eclipsed if the show is to work. In any case, there has to be something lean, hungry, and diabolic about Oscar, as he tries to inveigle his former lover, Lily, who has traded Broadway for Hollywood stardom, to come home and revive his fortunes. For this wily wooing to succeed, Oscar’s henchmen have dishonestly snared for him, on the luxe Twentieth Century Limited’s sixteen-hour trip from Chicago to New York, a compartment adjoining the unsuspecting Lily’s.

Baldwin, no longer the nervily muscular leading-man stud of yore, has filled out into a comfily chubby Tinseltown character actor with complacent jowls whence issues a somewhat strangulated voice, masticating rather than fusillading his lines. The seductive robe and swanky slippers William Ivey Long has bedizened him with do not sit here on a famished schemer counseled by despair.

“As Lily Garland, Anne Heche suggests a B-movie starlet rather than a peremptory diva.”

Worse yet is this Lily made hash of by Heche. With her anorectic anatomy, Kewpie-doll countenance, and beach-party chirping, Heche suggests a B-movie starlet rather than a peremptory diva, confirming that Lilys who fester smell far worse than weeds.

Too bad. The supporting cast shines with Tom Aldredge, Dan Butler, Stephen DeRosa, and Julie Halston giving their level best, and Long’s costumes, John Lee Beatty’s décor, and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting casting their several spells. Director Walter Bobbie, despite some excess, supplies the requisite frenzy; the loss is not total, but the luster is dimmed.

As an actor, Tim Robbins sparkles, and he has shown some talent as a filmmaker. But if Embedded is any indication, playwriting is something he should leave alone. It is the story, if story there is, of three soldiers—two men and one woman—torn from their loved ones by the war in Iraq … sorry, Gomorrah.

Alternatingly, we see scenes in which our government officials, here called the Office of Special Plans, sit in conclave, thinking up the hapless policies and self-justifying lies that land us in a too-costly war. Robbins’s imagination goes beyond calling Iraq Gomorrah; it stretches to making Baghdad Babylon, and bestowing on the warmongers such ribtickling monikers as Rum Rum, Gondola, and Pearly White, as well as half-masks that turn them into half-caricatures. (The other half is supplied by their dialogue.)

Further than that, there is only secondhand journalism, bolstered by clichés and histrionics. Robbins is honest enough to acknowledge reportage from four named journalists, but not enough so to declare them, in effect, co-authors. There is nothing in Embedded that an enterprising high-school student who had ingested enough news reports, and perused enough comic strips, could not have concocted just as well.

The title refers to a bunch of foreign correspondents embedded into the soldiery, and therefore drilled by a sadistic officer who, however, loves musical comedy and mentions David Merrick. (How three-dimensional can a character get?) Oh, yes, more inventiveness: The character closely modeled on Jessica Lynch is called Private Ryan, as an hommage to you-know-whom. The play is not so much taken from the headlines as taking headlines for drama. There is preaching to the converted that even the converted will find too preachy. Robbins, who also directed, may labor under the delusion that his play is Brechtian; if it is, then so is “Little Orphan Annie.”

Frozen, by the British play-wright Bryony Lavery, is the third play about a pedophile we’ve gotten in rapid succession. However, this pedophile, Ralph, preys on girls, not boys, and also kills his victims. Despite these additional twists, the play has better claims on a moratorium than on production. The author alleges that Frozen is about forgiveness, that, as the American academic Agnetha, researching her thesis on serial killers in England, declares, “the difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is [that] between a sin and a symptom.” But I see more revenge than forgiveness in the play; if there is forgiveness, it stems from Agnetha, the outsider, and not Nancy, the mother of 10-year-old Rhona, who has been ravished and slain. Anyhow, understanding does not equal forgiveness, and the person who lets his lethal sickness loose on society rather than seeking help is as sinful as anyone.

I believed less and less in the play as it became more and more twisty. Even an adultery subplot, dragged in from left field, struck me as contrived and manipulative. And the metaphor of freezing, extending from “the Arctic frozen sea that is the criminal mind” to Agnetha’s being Icelandic-American, and, beyond that, to the scenery and sound effects, smells strongly of a forced conceit. So too does the antifreeze of the final stage direction: “The sun breaks through, birds twitter, music plays,” which the savvy director, Doug Hughes, pretty much ignores. He has, though, inserted a kiss that I thoroughly disbelieve, but then, why not, given that such crucial scenes as Nancy’s visit to Ralph in jail, with its fatal consequences, are well past the credible?

What Frozen has, however, is first-rate acting. Swoosie Kurtz (Nancy), Brian F. O’Byrne (Ralph), and, in the least well-written part, Laila Robins (Agnetha) could not be better, and if superb performances are enough for you, so is this play, which, by the way, is written in verse—as is also Charles Mee’s Wintertime. I am not sure whether such delusion of grandeur is a sin or a symptom, but, either way, it is not to be encouraged.

Out of Steam