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Theatre review: The Twentieth-Century Way at Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre

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Photo by Michael Hardy Photography
From left: Christian Jordan Skinner (Brown) and Noah Wagner (Warren)in Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre’s The Twentieth-Century Way

In The Twentieth-Century Way, at Long Beach Playhouse’s Studio Theatre through Aug. 18, Noah Wagner and Christian Jordan Skinner offer a masterclass in acting. The two not only portray covert deputies who entrap and arrest members of the Long Beach gay community circa 1914, but also take turns as some of their own victims. Switching between roles on the turn of a dime, the two actors sustain a riveting and visceral narrative of this dark chapter of Long Beach’s history.

The play’s guiding conceit– that Wagner and Skinner are actors improvising playing the two undercover cops, Warren and Brown– reflects its subject matter in an interesting way. W.H. Warren and B.C. Brown were, in fact, actors conscripted by the Long Beach Police Department to round up 31 gay men. But instead of scripting a linear historical drama, playwright Tom Jacobson turns the riveting story inside out to brilliantly explore what “acting” means– especially important in the context of being gay.

The play opens with Brown (Skinner) arriving on a stage set with a few minimal props, thinking he is auditioning for a film. The dapper Warren (Wagner) soon arrives with an aggressive intensity but also an air of mystery– who is he when he is not acting? The two engage in a discussion of acting, which soon escalates into a competition of sorts, at the end of which Warren challenges Brown to demonstrate his acting chops by luring suspected gay men to expose themselves and literally be marked with indelible ink.

One of their victims is the kind and honest florist Herbert Lowe, a Minnesotan transplant to Long Beach beautifully played by Wagner. As Brown meets with Lowe in a sailor’s club, Warren (also Wagner) walks him through how to engage with Lowe as a gay man, until Lowe eventually agrees to let Brown move in with him and be arrested in a sting.

John Lamb (Skinner), a Scottish member of the vestry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, is engaged by a German immigrant, played coyly by the zealous Warren (Wagner), to meet him in a beach changing area for what California soon thereafter outlawed as “oral sodomy.”

Despite the sordidness of these entrapments, the overriding message here is one of human compassion, evinced most powerfully by Brown, who develops an attachment to the gentle Lowe, but also evident in Warren’s shock when the Scotsman is found to have committed suicide.

That emotional intensity is a testament to the playwright’s inspired meta-theatrical structure, as well as to director Reed Flores’s skill in managing the fast-paced story– including using subtle costume and lighting changes to mark character switches– and especially to the keen and emotive acting. We see actors Warren and Brown become, at the end, actors Wagner and Skinner, fully exposed, revealing through their nakedness the layers of masking and deception that prevent each of us– gay and not– from connecting as people.

The Twentieth-Century Way continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Aug. 18, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $20 to $24. Tickets and information are available by calling the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visiting lbplayhouse.org.

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Theatre review: The Twentieth-Century Way at Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre