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Theatre in Review: Important Hats of the Twentieth Century (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center Stage 2)

Carson Elrod, John Behlmann. Photo: Joan Marcus

Readers of Lighting&Sound America may be more than usually interested in Important Hats of the Twentieth Century for the reason that Carson Elrod, the play's leading man, has based his character on the costume designer William Ivey Long. Elrod has managed to integrate with almost eerie efficiency Long's mannerisms into the character of star fashion designer Sam Greevy. Long, who has designed more than 75 plays and is chair of the American Theatre Wing, is known for his flamboyant manner, nimble acid-and-honey wit, and deep-fried Southern accent. Using modern slang, you could describe his personality as "out there." But he's not half as out there as Important Hats of the Twentieth Century.

Nick Jones' play is set in some kind of alternate-universe version of 1930s New York, in which fashion rules above all. Forget the Brooklyn Dodgers, Broadway, and the World's Fair; this town lives for design only. Top couturiers are chased by the press, begged to find out the details of their next creations. Fashion reporters are manly, two-fisted headline hunters right out of The Front Page. When trouble is brewing in the big town, someone comments, "The police already have their hands full with this big fashion fair coming up."

In this topsy-turvy world, Greevy is the king of the dress designers, the entire city hanging on what he will do next. (As he fights off another gaggle of reporters, one of them lifts up a sick baby, asking Sam for a miracle cure.) His position is solidified by his long-term affair with T.B. Doyle, style reporter for a leading paper. Sam has a wife and kids stashed away, which seems odd; if Jones is going to play fast and loose with the past, why does he insist on making his heroes closet cases? Then again, Important Hats of the Twentieth Century comes to seem more and more the product of a series of arbitrary choices on the part of its author.

For example, the plot starts spinning when someone invades the lab of Dr. Cromwell, "the brilliant, overweight scientist," stealing his secret invention, the details of which he refuses to divulge. Then Paul Roms, a classmate of Sam's who was thrown out of design school and now languishes in obscurity, starts to make a splash with such inventions as the "sweatshirt" and the "tracksuit." Suddenly, customers are throwing over Sam's madly detailed, highly architectural creations in favor of shapeless clothing built for comfort.

Yes, you've guessed it: Paul has thieved Cromwell's invention, a time-travel hat -- in keeping with the production's bare-bones ethos, it looks like a colander with a couple of gears on it -- and he keeps returning to the closet of New Jersey teenager, circa 1998, where he finds new inspiration for new (to him) futuristic designs. Sam isn't the only person with reason to be outraged by this kind of pilfering: Paul's journeys through history have caused a rip in the space-time continuum, causing sinister orbs to fly over '30s New York, obliterating signs of the future with death rays. I'm not going to try and explain this, since the playwright hasn't made any attempt. In other news, Cromwell proudly notes, "I created the serum that makes cats less selfish," and Paul steals this concoction, too, using it to reduce people to zombies who can then be used as non-union employees in his clothing factory.

Jones seems to be striving for the fast-talking fun of a classic '30s screwball comedy, but Important Hats of the Twentieth Century is more like a Republic serial of the same era -- a mass of plot points that barely cohere as the story lurches from crisis to crisis. Some of the gags are as wildly fanciful as Sam's designs: "Aren't you the same T.B. Doyle who once railed against the tyranny of the cumberbund?" asks Paul, having taken the reporter hostage. Urged to join the villains, T.B., making like a Raymond Chandler tough guy, snarls, "I'd rather wear socks with sandals than work with you!" Sam's desperate attempt to regain his former fame results in the creation of an outrageous Erector-Set chapeau made of lead, which sends its wearer to the hospital with a broken neck. (It has live birds attached to offset its weight, a plan that fails in rooms where the ceiling is too low.) Other jokes are strictly out of the remainder bin: "That's the word on the street," says T.B., adding, "A homeless man told me about it." (Astonishingly, this one gets repeated.) By the time Sam and Paul, aided by that time-travel hat, are whirling through the centuries (at one point confronting a Yeti with an enormous fur penis), Important Hats of the Twentieth Century has come to seem like a Looney Tunes cartoon played on fast forward.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel's direction manages to find a style that can accommodate these crazy goings-on, and he has an unusually game cast. Elrod, one of our finest clowns, works that Southern accent for all it's worth, finding all sorts of extra syllables in remarks like "This is a business." He also has fun with Sam's narcissistic, acquisitive nature: When, in the middle of a breakdown, his estranged wife says, "Sam, you have people who love you," he cries out, sobbing, "But they're not the people who matter!" As T.B., John Behlmann embraces the absurdity of his character's premise with relish, giving us a gay fashion reporter with the hardboiled panache of, say, Joel McCrea or Fred MacMurray in their early-'40s incarnations. Remy Auberjonois does his best as the obese Cromwell and as a radio announcer who keeps harping on the fact that nobody can see him. As Paul, Matthew Saldivar displays excellent timing and a fine talent for skulking around. Triney Sandoval is solid as a zombified visitor from the future and Maria Elena Ramirez amuses in three roles, as Cromwell's adoring nurse, Sam's aggrieved wife, and a New Jersey matron of the '90s who is horrified to find all sorts of bizarre creatures popping out of her son's closet.

Under the circumstances, Timothy R. Mackabee's extremely spare set design -- a clothes rack, a doorway, and a few furnishings -- is a good idea, allowing the action to move as fast as possible. (It's not clear if he designed the upstage wall, a typical arrangement of bricks and radiators, but if he did, it looks great.) Jason Lyons' lighting is marked by a range of clever chase effects for each of the time-travel scenes. Jennifer Moeller's costumes neatly contrast elaborate '30s clothes with '90s casual wear; she supplies the climactic time-travel battle with elaborate outfits of several centuries, including 18th-century gowns, Renaissance doublets, and those Yeti costumes. (Leah J. Loukas' wig and hair designs are a big help.) Palmer Hefferan's sound design combines a playlist of vintage recordings of Cole Porter tunes with time-travel sound effects and his own rather strange, almost atonal, incidental music.

Somewhere inside Important Hats of the Twentieth Century is a parable about the challenges of being an artist and the struggle to please oneself as well as one's public, but it's hard to get at, what with all the shouting and general running around. In the frantic pursuit of any available laugh, Jones undermines his own often-imaginative conception. As any good dress designer will tell you, creation requires discipline, and plenty of it. -- David Barbour


(30 November 2015)

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