In playwright Tom Jacobson's minimalist exercise The Twentieth Century Way, set in 1914, two out-of-work actors gather in a dank, brick-lined room lit by a single-bulb floor lamp. They are there to audition for a part in a Hollywood movie. As in Waiting for Godot, they'll be waiting a long time. No audition will take place, unless you consider the whole show to be an audition orchestrated by one or both players, who ferret into each other's brains like psychological assassins over a breathless 85 minutes of real time.
Now at Empire Stage, Twentieth Century Way is a dense, dizzying piece of absurdist theater, intellectually challenging and imbued with more layers than Tetris. Before we go any further, some backstory: This is not a play to walk into blindly. It is inspired by the real-life case of two unemployed actors who went undercover as homosexuals in Long Beach in 1914 with the goal of entrapping gays for "social vagrancy" in parks and restrooms. The actors' actions led to the arrests of at least 30 gay men.
So how does Jacobson dramatize this complex scenario with two actors, one set, and one act? By stripping away any notion of realism and situating the scheme solely in the characters' heads.
Mr. Warren (Clay Cartland) and Mr. Brown (Mike Westrich) have arrived in an abandoned dressing room to audition for the role of a "confidence man." The meek Brown has already been waiting more than two hours. To alleviate the boredom, the assertive Warren suggests a round of improvisational acting inspired by commedia dell'arte and centered on same-sex vice, apparently the moral crisis du jour of the time. It isn't long before Brown and Warren are digging through costume trunks for props and playing about a dozen characters, switching personae and accents on a dime, from kindly Minnesotan johns to grizzled newspapermen, flamboyant queens, weary beat cops, and righteous prosecutors.
Following the subtle cues of Nate Skyes' lighting design, Warren and Brown drop in and out of character any time one of them — usually Brown — has a problem with the direction of the improv. Brown begins to care for their invented characters and for Warren in general, and the play becomes a meditation on empathy and humanity in the acting world — of retaining one's identity under the mask of another, blurring the tenuous lines between life and art.
The direction, by Michael Leeds, is frequently spellbinding, keeping spectators on their toes with every surprise, double-cross, and rule-break. Hunched over and downcast, Westrich conveys his character's pool of untapped longing, and Cartland cuts a towering figure of sociopathic confidence. He's a tragic cipher hidden under multiple personalities, and it's impossible to take your eyes off him. Neither actor nails all his myriad accents, but it doesn't matter. Their chemistry is palpable, pulsating with homoerotic subtext that comes to a head in the play's final, revealing twist.
What doesn't come across is any sense of activist outrage at the plight of gay men in Long Beach in 1914 — surprising, given that the production arrives courtesy of the gaycentric, new theater company Island City Stage. It is perhaps a symptom of, in newspaper-speak, "burying the lede" that any references to the backwardness of law enforcement and the intolerance of the moral majority are offered as mere afterthoughts. This is a play for healthy cerebrums, not bleeding hearts.