Sunday, July 5, 2015

Review: 'The Twentieth-Century Way' at Walking Fish

I was not entirely entrapped by "The Twentieth-Century Way," which opened Wednesday night at Walking Fish Theatre in Kensington, although Karen Case Cook's stark production became more impressive by degrees as it unfolded. But Tom Jacobson's play, which tries to do too much and takes about 10 minutes too long to do it, is provocative.

Review: 'The Twentieth-Century Way' at Walking Fish

From left, Thomas Raniszewski, Peter Danzig <br />
From left, Thomas Raniszewski, Peter Danzig Stan Heleva

By Howard Shapiro
Is acting a form of entrapment? If you’re in the audience and you buy into a play, the answer is clearly, yes: You’ve been fooled, and a willing participant.

Is entrapment a form of acting? That’s a tougher question, posed by Tom Jacobson’s play The Twentieth-Century Way, which uses an incident in Long Beach, Calif., almost a hundred years ago to explore the question.

I was not entirely entrapped by the play that opened Wednesday night at Walking Fish Theatre in Kensington, although Karen Case Cook’s stark production became more impressive by degrees as it unfolded. But Jacobson’s play, which tries to do too much and takes about 10 minutes too long to do it, is provocative. While I was watching it, I found it sometimes silly and other times compelling — not an unquestionable success or an outright failure. Yet after I left the theater, I mulled over its themes and what it challenged us to consider, and I began to appreciate it.

I also decided that you have to sort out The Twentieth-Century Way, whose title is a euphemism (in the play, at least) for oral sex among men, after it’s over; it’s either too rich or too convoluted, depending on your view. (I tend toward the latter.) Jacobson, a writer from Los Angeles, has two actors — they appear to be waiting for their movie-role auditions — enter into an acting game of improvisation about police entrapment of gay men.

The set-up for this little game is pure nonsense — an awkward conversation that could come only from a pretentious script. But once the game between the two revs up, the play becomes interesting. The subject for the game is a real incident in 1914, when police infiltrated a group of Long Beach men — among them, well-respected townies — who were hooking up for sex among themselves, then hit them with a charge of “social vagrancy” but not oral sex, which wasn’t a crime. (It later became one for a substantial period, which the play attributes to the nabbings by Long Beach police.)

The Twentieth-Century Way is earnestly performed by Peter Andrew Danzig and Thomas Raniszewski, who play all the roles skillfully except for those they are originally given — the two actors waiting for auditions, characters they deliver as forced and unbelievable. The playwright’s conceit has these two men explore the nature of acting by improvising the Long Beach entrapment, and in turn examining the natures of trust and love, vice and virtue, prejudice and victimization. In the course of this, they shift in and out of the people they’re supposed to be and the people they’re supposed to be playing.

That’s a lot going on in a 100- minute one-act. The play begins to cave from its weight, particularly when it confuses the idea of acting in a theater with acting in a sting to deceive real people. The two men, playing their original characters or maybe their roles, end up naked in a scene that may show their original intent when they began their game. Or maybe not. In any case, the scene is not gratuitous. At times, though, the play is.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or


At Walking Fish Theatre, 2509 Frankford Ave., through Aug. 20. Tickets: $18. Information: 215-427-9255 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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