Important Hats of the Twentieth Century
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Important Hats of the Twentieth Century: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Nick Jones zings between worlds, continually mounting new plays (Trevor in 2013, Verité earlier this year) while scripting and producing TV’s Orange is the New Black. His shows are similarly busy—flinging themselves across genre, making humor from the odd juxtaposition. Flexibility, velocity, the instant pivot: These are all hallmarks of the farceur, and the first parts of his wackadoodle sci-fi frolic Important Hats of the Twentieth Century whiz by. Unfortunately, the speed runs out before the show's quite over. As in other works of his (see The Coward) Jones is better at setting things up than at working them through. Without a second idea to propel the central section, even a cast of committed zanies can't keep the frothiness afloat.
It's a Boys Adventure fantasy of ’30's New York, full of snappy fedoras, radio commentators and mad scientists mourning the collapse of the dirigible industry. The toast of the town is fashion designer Sam Greevy (live wire Carson Elrod), whose position seems unassailable: His positive reviews are written by his lover, fashion reporter T.B. Doyle (John Behlmann). Trouble looms, though. Sam's rival Paul Roms (the marvelous Matthew Saldivar) has stolen a time machine; a few beep boop boops later, Roms has visited the ’90s, stolen some laundry and “invented” the sweatshirt.
When at their best, Jones and his longtime director Moritz von Stuelpnagel seem like puppies in the leaf pile, bouncing around for sheer joy. Timothy R. Mackabee's set consists of a rack of clothes and a rolling door, which can be wheeled around at hurricane speed, allowing for any number of very silly gags. There are moments of real comic bliss: Behlmann is as crisp as a hat brim, especially when he makes starchy comments about what the front row is wearing; when Paul bursts through the closet of a ’90s teen (a hilariously sulky Jon Bass), it's like the best parts of Goldoni and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure combined.
Paul escalates his thievery, and soon he's modeling skater pants—complete with exposed bum—and sneakers, which lend him astonishing power. “No one can hear me!” he exults. And indeed, nothing can stop him. This, alas, is the problem. Important Hats finds itself in a corner, since Jones has established a rivalry but no risk to anything we care about. (He introduces murderous UFOs, which are meant to pose a threat against New York itself, yet nothing the characters do has much direct impact on them; they just increase the noise level during the long climax.) Von Stuelpnagel keeps the pace as fast as he can, and the actors run themselves breathless. But without a dramatic engine the show already seems long at intermission. Jones might take Sam's attitude about tailoring to heart: The show is comfy fun, but might fit better with some judicious cuts.—Helen Shaw
Manhattan Theatre Club (Off Broadway). By Nick Jones. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 55mins. One intermission.