NCTC presents Ludwig's 'Twentieth Century'

“Twentieth Century” stars Diane Mitchell as Lily Garland and Scott Pollak as Oscar Jaffe. Photograph by Randy Drake.

By Joan Doggrell
Special to The Citizen

“Twentieth Century” opens at NCTC on Thursday, August 25, at 8:00 pm. Paul Conroy, NCTC’s artistic director, is personally directing this fast-paced comedy. NCTC has previously staged Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Moon over Buffalo.”

In 1933, the Twentieth Century Limited was quite possibly the most famous and luxurious passenger train in the world. In the play, one of the train passengers is Oscar Jaffe, characterized as “an egomaniacal Broadway director.” He has 16 hours – the time it will take to travel from Chicago to New York – to persuade Hollywood starlet Lily Garland to return to Broadway and star in his upcoming show. He doesn’t know yet what the show will be, but he’d better think fast – he’s broke and this is his last chance. A number of zany fellow passengers get involved, including a rival producer, a religious nut, a stage-struck doctor and Lily’s jealous boyfriend.

“If you like to laugh you’ll want to see this show,” said Conroy. “It has all those larger-than-life stock characters trapped together in a situation where they can’t avoid one another.”
Unlike Neil Simon’s “Rumors,” “Twentieth Century” is not “a door-slamming farce,” said Conroy. “It’s more in the vein of the Marx Brothers – fast-paced with a lot of physical humor. It’s like a three-ring circus. People are coming in one room, going out another, or completely avoiding a room – in three places at the same time. It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride.”

The stage set poses challenges. Ken Ludwig’s 2004 production earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Set Design of a Play. NCTC’s set designers are building three separate “rooms” on the Mainstage to represent three locations on the train. Conroy wants the set to invoke the extravagance of a bygone time.

“Our observation car is going to be very art deco. Lily’s boudoir has a French flair, and Oscar has a drawing room. Some people will associate the setting with ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ but the Orient Express was an older train. The Twentieth Century Limited was a sleek steel train, offering the pinnacle of train travel, where wealthy passengers could book rooms in different styles.”

The costumes will reflect the period. “When I direct I like to pay attention to detail,” said Conroy. ”In shows like this one or ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ each woman needs a pair of gloves, a purse, and a hat, because one would never go outside without any of those. And each man needs a hat, and when he comes inside he takes it off. The jewelry and accessories are also very much connected. As a society today, that detail is lost to us. Seeing it is like taking a step back in time, but it’s not so foreign that people don’t remember it.”

Diane Mitchell, playing Lily Garland, makes several costume changes in the course of the show. Every time she has an entrance she’s wearing a different outfit or a new hairstyle – and she won’t be using wigs. Mitchell is new to NCTC. She has performed at Southside Theatre Guild in Fairburn and in Atlanta. “I’ve been in theatre for two and a half years, performing both professionally and as a volunteer. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working in this theatre – it’s a beautiful place, and we have a phenomenal cast. I hope to see everyone again.”

Other people new to NCTC include Raina Bass, Louisa Grant, and John-Luke Pollock.

Bass and Grant both “chickened out” for their scheduled audition, but found the courage to try again and, to their astonishment, were chosen for their respective roles. Bass plays Anita Highland, a hysterical secretary, and Grant plays Myrtle Clark, a religious fanatic and an escapee from a lunatic asylum.

Bass is making her acting debut. “Since I grew up dancing I’m familiar with being in the spotlight,” she said. “But I’ve never acted before. I’ve always been very afraid of the audition process. Auditioning here was a birthday gift to myself.”

Grant has been associated with Southside Theatre Guild ever since she played Pinocchio at age eleven in 1974. She has performed at several other area theatres, but this will be her first role at NCTC. “I’m a very shy person,” she said. “Acting is a way of getting outside of myself and relating to people in a whole new way. Paul Conroy is a phenomenal director. He’s very precise, but at the same times makes the experience fun. It’s so refreshing.”

John-Luke Pollock is a senior at Northgate High School. “I’ve volunteered at NCTC a lot, but this is my first time on stage. I learned about NCTC through Paul Conroy, who was a long-term substitute drama teacher at my school. I’ve wanted to be under his direction so I’m glad to be in the show.” Pollock plays the train’s porter.

“Classical comedy styles are still making people laugh today,” said Conroy. “Certain themes are universal. Even though this play was set in the 1930s, you’ll still recognize these characters and celebrity types. I think that folks who enjoyed ‘Rumors’ should definitely come to see this. It’s good fun for the entire family.”

“Twentieth Century” kicks off NCTC’s fall new season on August 25 at 8 p.m., with additional 8 p.m. performances on August 26 and 27. The August 28 show is a matinee starting at 3 p.m. The show is also playing the following weekend: September 1, 2, and 3 at 8:00 pm and September 4 at 3 p.m.

On opening night the NCTC 2012-2013 season will be announced, along with the shows offered through May of 2013. This would be a good time to purchase season tickets. They cost $120.00 for 10 shows for adults. Seniors (over 65) pay $100.00. You can use your tickets for any NCTC show, including the NITWITS (but not Improv Experiment).
For ticket reservations or more information: 770-683-6282 or www.newnantheatre.org

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