'Important Hats of the Twentieth Century': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Matthew Saldivar and Jon Bass in 'Important Hats of the Twentieth Century'
This wildly ambitious comedy is as exhausting as it is funny
12/13/2015

A dastardly '30s-era fashion designer uses a stolen time machine to get his ideas from the future in 'Orange Is the New Black' writer Nick Jones' wacky farce.

If a play could be said to be suffering from attention-deficit disorder, Important Hats of the Twentieth Century would be it. Receiving its world premiere courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club, this wacky farce by Nick Jones (a staff writer and producer on Orange Is the New Black, whose stage work includes Verite and The Coward) packs so many ideas and gags into its two-hour running time that you're bound to leave the theater feeling utterly exhausted. That will partly be the result of laughing very hard.

To summarize the plot seems a Herculean task, but here goes: The play begins in 1937, when fashion designer Sam Greevy (Carson Elrod) is the "King of Dresses." At least that's how fashion reporter T.B. Doyle (John Behlmann), who also happens to be his lover, describes him.

The designs of Sam's rival, Paul Roms (Matthew Saldivar), are very different. Declaring that he wants to make "practical clothes for regular people," Roms is creating such revolutionary items of apparel as the sweatshirt, skater pants and sneakers, which are soon flying off the shelves.

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It turns out that the upstart designer is getting his fashion ideas from the future: 1998, in the bedroom of a surly Albany teenager (Jon Bass), to be exact. Roms is regularly pilfering the boy's clothes, thanks to a time-travel-enabling hat he's stolen from "brilliant overweight scientist" Dr. Cromwell (Remy Auberjonois).

The convoluted storyline eventually includes such elements as giant glowing orbs floating in the sky; holes ripped in the fabric of time and space; a serum that makes cats less selfish; zombified factory workers; an Abraham Lincoln bathroom joke; and masturbating Sasquatches.

And, in the interest of full disclosure, some sharp jabs at critics.

"It must be hard being a critic," someone says to Doyle. "Always thinking you're right about everything."

"Well, it's the posturing that's key," he replies.

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At the risk of posturing, let me say that this play, surely one of the looniest ever seen at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is often very, very funny. There's a profusion of laugh-out-loud one-liners; the expert ensemble, many playing multiple roles, is consistently hilarious; and the low-tech staging by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God) is masterful in its breathlessly paced, controlled chaos.

But as the plot synopsis suggests, the evening also is wildly overstuffed and self-indulgent, with the playwright throwing so many subplots and gags into the mix that weariness eventually settles in. Overlong by at least a half-hour and losing comic momentum with its intermission, Important Hats feels increasingly strained in the second act, with a dizzying montage of time-travel gags that smacks of juvenilia.

It seems churlish to complain about a play trying too hard to be funny. But in the case of this hugely ambitious farce, less would actually have been more. 

Cast: Remy Auberjonois, Jon Bass, John Behlmann, Reed Campbell, Carson Elrod, Maria Elena Ramirez, Matthew Saldivar, Triney Sandoval, Henry Vick
Playwright: Nick Jones
Director: Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Set designer: Timothy R. Mackabee
Costume designer: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Music and sound design: Palmer Hefferan
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club

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