The Twentieth Century Way

Tom Jacobson
The Collective in association with Jermyn Street Theatre
Jermyn Street Theatre

James Sindall, left, as Warren and Fraser Wall as Brown Credit: Laura Hyatt

The use of “honey-traps” to secure arrests for homosexual activity was not uncommon. In the 1950s and 1960s Britain, pretty policemen might find themselves being used as bait; in the Eastern bloc, the Soviet spy system used similar methods to snare visiting Westerners into spying.

This American two-hander centres on the practice in the USA and a particular instance of entrapment in California in 1914 when the Long Beach police department hired two actors for the job, paying them $15 for every successful arrest that resulted.

The play’s title is apparently a euphemism for a blow-job. Improved hygiene leading to cleaner cocks and faster fly action afforded by the invention of the zip made fellatio more favoured, becoming the fashionable “twentieth century way” of congress.

Tom Jacobson’s play doesn’t present us with Warren and Brown themselves but with two more recent actors who give themselves the same names when they meet at a movie casting and, while waiting for their auditions, begin a competition in improvisation recreating incidents from 1914 involving their namesakes.

The production doesn’t set the framing in any particular period; the suits the actors are wearing don’t look very modern, though not quite 1914, but perhaps they are dressed to look like the role they are up for and the script seems sometimes deliberately unclear as to whether things are part of the improvisation or the framing.

Warren for instance seems to follow Stanislavski while Brown favours older theories of acting, but James Sindall, taking the initiative as Warren, and Fraser Wall as Brown do an excellent job switching between multiple characters as they play both bait and victims, cops, journalists and lawyers.

Sindall’s actor Warren comes out so pat with things, including the idea for the improvisation, with no time for thinking, that it seems artificial, but that scarcely matters in a play so contrived in its metatheatricality. It not only explores whom the actor is during performance but questions whether anyone ever stops acting in public or private let alone on the stage, especially in a world where being one's true self is not permitted.

The Twentieth Century Way may look much more clever on the page that it seems in performance. Its constant and sudden changes make it difficult to see what it is really on about in its lively confusion.

Marylynne Anderson-Cooper’s direction goes for vitality rather than clarity. There seems to be a music-hall double act going on that never quite bursts out of the constraints of the format though it is nearly there in the way that she handles actual sexual encounters.

There is no prurient nudity or embarrassing simulation: a rack of hanging costumes serves as the partition between WC cubicles with its glory hole. It’s all in the best possible taste, which makes it more funny, as the actor proceeds to makes an identifying indelible mark on the members of his unlucky victims.

Intriguingly, Californian law in 1914 did not criminalise fellation—the men Warren and Brown trapped were charged with “social vagrancy”. It was their activities that led to it being specified as illegal in California’s new anti-sodomy laws of 1915.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton