Review: Twentieth Century – it’s ladies’ night at the Metro

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Vancouver’s Metro Theatre ends its 2009/2010 season with the Ken Ludwig adaptation of the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur comedy Twentieth Century.  And while the train does indeed make it from Chicago to New York, it only gets there with a lot of help from Caitlin Clugston and Janet Glassford who work hard to stoke this steam engine’s fire.

Only as good as your latest Broadway success, Oscar Jaffe (Samuel B. Barnes) has fallen on bad times when his last production flopped.  Now with the risk of losing his theatre, Jaffe is looking for one more hit show that will save him and he isn’t above using a little manipulation and a few lies to get what he wants.

Jaffe’s muse and former lover Lily Garland (Caitlin Clugston) is on board the Twentieth Century Limited train from Chicago to New York.  With the help of his producer Ida Webb (Janet Glassford) and publicist Owen O’Malley (Tyler Q. Felbel) Oscar must convince Lily to sign on to do his new play even though he still has no idea what it will be about.

Throw in a whack of unlikely characters including apparent industrialist and religious nut Matthew Clark (Darren Rathwell) or one of the cast members of the Oberammergau Passion Play (Daniel Unruh) and you have the makings of what should be a real screwball comedy.

The cast of Metro Theatre's production of Twentieth Century
The cast of Metro Theatre’s production of Twentieth Century.

Both Clugston and Glassford are spot-on with their characters.  Clugston gets her Lily down with just the right amount of twisted Norma Desmond glamour when needed and Glassford seems to be channeling Babe Bennett, sans snappy hats, with some of the funniest pieces of business seen on stage all night.

Barnes’ Jaffe is sufficiently larger-than-life but I never quite got why everyone was supposed to be so afraid of him.  Felbel does a decent job as the Irish drunk who gets some good one-liners but it is Scott Livingston as Lily’s manager and lover George that scores the most points of the male cast providing a great contrast to Clugston’s Lily.

But even with most in the cast working hard at their zany and over-the-top characters, the show suffers from a pacing that made me feel like I could get from Chicago to New York faster than the train. Director Catherine Morrison tries to keep the action and the dialogue moving but there was a certain flatness that permeates the show.  The Playwrights make this even more difficult by adding a whole slew of second-string characters who add little value in keeping the story moving along.

Also hampering the actors is the set design.  While I have always have been a fan of the Metro’s set designs and have in the past suggested that some of Vancouver’s professional theatre company’s could learn a thing or two from this group, this time, while the set looks great, it actually becomes a hindrance to the action being so far upstage.  I won’t harp on about the fact those of us seated in the right orchestra missed most everything that happened stage left, but by placing the set so far upstage Director Catherine Morrison and Set Designer Hank Gjodecjec add to the flatness, where even some of these broadly written characters cannot overcome the distance.

While it was definitely ladies’ night at the Metro with great performances from Clugston and Glassford, there was  only just enough stream to get this production to the station on time.

3 out of 5 stars Twentieth Century
Metro Theatre
19  June – 17 July 2010

Tickets are $15/$18 available by calling the Metro Box Office at 604 266-7191 or at the theatre. Visit for more information.

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