Theater Review: 'The 20th Century Way'

Ben Miles


What a difference a century makes. In 1914, in the city of Long Beach (yes, this Long Beach) the municiple police department hired actors to work undercover as so-called vice specialists. The PD’s longago ploy had been lurking in the collective amnesia of what is now know proudly touted as the International City. That is until dramatist Tom Jacobson revived this tawdry memory in his 2010 award-winning play, “The Twentieth-Century Way.”

Now Jacobson’s play is at last having it’s International City debut in the Studio Theatre of the Long Beach Playhouse, through August 18. Under the bold direction of Reed Flores, this absurdist take on a slice of the city’s history is a multilayered presentation filled with facts ranging from the history of the modern-day zipper to improvements in personal hygiene and how such developments led to or promoted more access and ease with regard to acts of sex. Inventively the whole story unfolds through two actors who meet on a stage (ghost light and all, and with the forbidden moniker “Macbeth” spoken aloud in the theater).

It’s initially puzzling why these two thespians are meeting — alas, Warren ( Noah Wagner in a

daring, flesh-baring performance) explains to Brown (an equally daring, flesh-baring performance by Christian Jordan Skinner)why the two have come together on this stage, which is to pose as men soliciting acts of sex from gay men in the city’s bathhouses and public restrooms while being deputized to make arrest of any takers. In an unsavory agreement with the Long Beach police chief, Warren and Brown are to receive $15 for each “collar” they bring into police custody. Thirty-one men who were arrested and outted by the Los Angeles Times. Twenty-nine of the arrestees pleaded guilty as charged. One of those brought in by the vice agents was Charles Lamb, a respected banker who eventually took his own life by ingesting cyanide and then abandoning himself to the ocean, leaving a suicide note for his sibling.

Portraying dozens of roles, the two actors — Wagner and Skinner — are heroic in the line load they carry and the varying characters the incarnate and throughout the well-crafted staging (set design by ‘Phie Mura; costumes by Donna Fristche; lighting by Daniel Wally; sound engineering by Julie Moore). “The Twentieth Century Way” isn’t for the faint of heart and it certainly isn’t appropriate for children; it is, however, an important and unfortunate part of the city’s history and should be appreciated by theatergoers interested in where we as a society have been and maybe how we got to where we are.

“The Twentieth Century Way” continues at Long Playhouse’s Studio Theatre, through August 18.

Evening performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are on select Sundays at 2 p.m.

The Long Playhouse is located at 5021 East Anaheim Street, Long Beach, 90804.

For tickets call (562) 494-1014, option 1. For online ticketing visit


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