January 20, 2009


by Lee Hartgrave
Janurary 20, 2009

Reporters greet the arrival of Oscar (Dan Hiatt) and Star Lily Garland (Rebecca Dines) as they get on the 20th Century. Photo by: Mark Kitaoka


CHUG, CHUG, CHUG THE 20TH CENTURY TRAIN HUFFS AND PUFFS, BUT NEVER MAKES IT UP THE HILL. The Theater lights go up on the stage. The conductor welcomes us to the 20th Century Train that is known for its glamor and movie stars who used to ride on it in the Thirties. The good news is the Train on the stage is a fabulous recreation of the luxury trains of the day. I have seen this play, plus the musical version several times and this is the first set that actually looked like the inside of the luxurious train. The light fixtures are perfect deco and the furnishings are wonderful for lounging in the Club Room. The sumptuous State Rooms were meant for long travel. With that in front of me, I thought we were finally going to see this play done the way that it should be – full of fun, smart Alec remarks and tons of spirit that would recall that era. I was wrong.

The Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play has received mixed reviews over the years. For some reason no one seems to be able to make the story move quick enough. It becomes Amtrak on the way to New York from Chicago. Yes, with a lot more chic, but nevertheless – an endless ride. Quite frankly, I don’t know what is wrong with it. The acting by Rebecca Dines and Dan Hiatt is good, (but Hiatt is no John Barrymore). The play has been reworked recently by Ken Ludwig, who cut down the characters from 50 to 10 that doesn’t seem to make much difference in the movement. I say ‘movement’, because that is what is missing. At the end of the play there is some incidental music that I call ‘moving music’. This is what is needed. It needs more segments of ‘moving music’ throughout the play to give the story a feeling of excitement and yes, movement. I know I am over using the word (movement) – but I want to make it clear why the play has dead spots that could easily be filled with music energy.

The story is about a high-ego producer-director (Hiatt) who tries to trick his former protégé and star Lily Garland (Dines) to sign a contract of a new play. Lily is now an Oscar-winning movie star (and acts like one) who is having an affair with her young agent George (Geno Carvalho). There are character actors such as a Religious nut, (Gerry Hiken who is very much fun as he posts “Repent” signs all over the Train.) Then there is another comic relief actor (Jackson Davis), a doctor who is trying to peddle his play version of Joan of Arc.

Alas, it was hard to get too excited over the few Breadcrumbs that were strewn about the stage. The play just plodded along. But what is great, are the costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt that bring 30’s Hollywood to life. That is worth celebrating.

Robert Kelley Directed the TheatreWorks production. www.theatreworks.org.
Thru Feb. 8, 2009.

At the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts.


(((Lee Hartgrave has contributed many articles to the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Datebook section and produced a long-running Arts Segment on PBS-KQED)))

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