Adapted by Ken Ludwig from on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on the unproduced play “Napoleon of Broadway” by Charles B. Millholland
Studio Playhouse, 14 Alvin Place
By GWEN OREL
Before he played Donald Trump, Alec Baldwin played another colorful New Yorker, the egotistical Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe, one of the main characters in “The Twentieth Century.”
Baldwin performed in a Ken Ludwig adaptation of the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (authors of “The Front Page”) on Broadway in 2004. (A musical version, titled “On the Twentieth Century,” ran on Broadway in 1978 and in 2015).
Studio Playhouse presents the comedy as its season closer, beginning on Thursday, June 1, continuing through Wednesday, June 17.
The title of the play is the name of the train that various theater people travel aboard from Chicago to Grand Central Station. Aboard the 20th Century Limited, larger-than-life producer Oscar Jaffe tries to woo former flame, the star Lily Garland (née Mildred Plotka) into signing a contract with him.
According to Wikipedia, the unproduced play by Charles B. Millholland on which Hecht and MacArthur based their comedy was titled “Napoleon on Broadway.” The character of Jaffe was based in part on the Broadway producer David Belasco.
With a cast of 12, and a set that demands several train cars with working doors, it’s a complicated show. The Hecht/MacArthur play, before the Ludwig adaptation, bowed in 1932, and includes period language, style, jokes and the fast pace of a farce.
Director Amy Fox, of Verona, said she was drawn to the piece after she saw the musical. Once she read the play, she found it “as much fun without the music.”
And, she added, “it’s a show about theater people. That’s always a fun piece of the puzzle.”
The set reminds Fox of the kind of puzzle that has sliding tiles in a frame with one tile missing.
Designer Ken Budris, of West Caldwell, who played Algernon in a 2014 production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Studio Playhouse, came up with a way to put three full-sized train car interiors on a less-than-Broadway-sized stage: casters. One of the cars moves left to right, and two move up and down stage.
Nicholas Hudson, of Brooklyn, plays Studio’s Jaffe, throwing around a scarf with abandon at a dress rehearsal Monday night. Hudson, as Jaffe, bemoans his sorry fate in a booming voice, and giggles with Garland about the ridiculousness of it all. It is Hudson’s first role with Studio Players, and one of few that he’s performed: despite his onstage confidence and happy mugging, Hudson is a newcomer to acting: he began only last year.
He began acting after accompanying his wife, and a good friend, on auditions. Both times, Fox got a role and the person he went with did not.
“I’m something of an audition vampire,” the actor said with a laugh.
But though he is new to treading the boards, he said his friends and family wouldn’t say the role of a big ham is a stretch. When he tells stories, Hudson said, “I do the voices.”
Working with Judy Wilson of Fort Lee, who plays Garland, is especially fun for Hudson, because when alone together the two thespians show that they understand each other’s schtick. “We don’t have much opportunity to be authentic people,” the actor said.
For Fox, Hudson owned the role from the moment he showed up.
In a scene with Garland, when Jaffe describes a play, and chants “olives, olives, olives,” Garland laughs — and so does the director, every time.
Audiences may laugh, and also feel good about going; with this show, Studio begins a tradition of community outreach. Box office for the first Thursday evening performance, on June 8, will be split with the Montclair Ambulance Unit.
In the future, one Thursday performance for every main-stage show will split the proceeds with a local charity or service organization.