In 1914, two actors helped California police entrap gay men having sex. A brilliant off-Broadway play imagines their own charged, dark relationship.
Two actors, Brown and Warren, share a room waiting to be called to an audition. The room has a trunk in it, two chairs, and a rack of clothes, which look fluttering and feminine. The audition never happens; the men’s story—how they came to be employed by the Long Beach Police Department to entrap men who had sex with men—is to be the performance we watch.
The roots of Tom Jacobson’s play, The Twentieth-Century Way, are true: in 1914 there really were two actors named W.H. Warren and B.C. Brown hired as “vice specialists” by the police—“the first instance on record of Southern California police entrapment of homosexuals,” as Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons put it in their book, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians.
Brown had delicate features, Warren was rugged; they were hired because, write Faderman and Timmons, their looks would appeal to gay men of all tastes to come on to them in restrooms, or changing rooms of bath-houses.
The book inspired Jacobson—by day, Senior Vice President of Advancement at L.A.’s Natural History Museum—to not only imagine who these men might have been (details of their lives are scant), but to imagine them at work entrapping gay men.
The two would encourage their targets to show their penises through ‘glory holes’ between walls or stalls, after which they would score a cross on the men’s penises with a permanent marker. The men and their marked penises, indicative of their ‘guilt,’ would then be hauled down to the police station, and the men would be prosecuted for ‘social vagrancy.’
In the play this ugly vocation bleeds into Warren and Brown’s relationship with each other, Brown vocalizing a hive of moral and ethical quandaries about the men’s lives they are helping destroy.
Between the two men also blooms desire and, perhaps, love—but not before Warren has beaten up, confused, aroused, and humiliated Brown.
“It’s a power play,” Jacobson tells The Daily Beast. “What does it mean to be a ‘top’ (a term meaning the active sexual partner) socially for these men, and what happens when the ‘bottom’ (passive partner) tops the top. It’s like the play says, ‘Any time two men meet, it’s a contest.’ Maybe it’s the same for women. Men can’t help it. They have an encounter, which isn’t necessarily sexual, and decide who’s the top and who’s the bottom—with both vying to be the top.”
Unlike its two actors, Jacobson sees the play, at its heart, as a love story between two closeted gay men. “Who would do this as a job? Why pay so much attention to ‘vice’ and ‘social vagrancy’? It’s the same today: I’m never surprised when those most obsessed with homosexuality, who are the most anti-gay, turn out to be gay themselves.”
“I may not be a gay man, but that doesn’t mean I can’t understand what it is to long, love, or try and understand these men’s struggles.”
The performances of Robert Mammana (Warren) and Will Bradley (Brown) are virtuosic: they not only play the actors, but also the victims of their entrapment who include a brave florist (played by Mammana, the actor’s favorite character and the utter flipside to the villainous Warren) and a gentle Scotsman played by Bradley.
At the end, Mammana and Bradley, who have played the characters for five years in different productions, eventually play themselves.
“One of the things I’ve always loved about acting is its virtuosity,” says Jacobson. “I love actors, and the variety of things that they can do.”
The actors, under director Michael Michetti, switch between scenes and characters in a racing polyphony: indeed Mammana likens it to preparing for a race—the only way to rehearse and get it right was to break the play up into pieces and stitch it together.
Every night he has “the bubbling fear” that he will forget a line (he says he skipped a section the night I was there, but he covered so adeptly the audience was none the wiser).
One night he had to clear his throat, but was concerned to do so in case it impacted the rhythm of his words, and intensity of performance.
“The freedom of relaxation doesn’t exist for 92 minutes,” he says, correctly—and that goes for the audience too. Warren’s sense of menace and threat is rumbling and ever-present; Brown is handcuffed, stripped, molested, thrown about, and verbally abused—until the tables intriguingly turn. It’s a dazzling play about domination, submission, the closet, persecution, love, and performance in all its definitions.
Jacobson imagines Warren as sociopathic and cruel set against the more sympathetic Brown whose goodness might be the key if not to save Warren, then at least to partially redeem him. Brown is Warren’s trigger to find out who he really is, thinks Mammana, digging deeper and pushing him further.
“I see him as a cornered animal,” says Mammana of Warren. “I find people like that fascinating. You’re never quite sure where you stand with them. A lot of how he behaves comes from his loneliness and fear, and he will lash out at Brown or anyone. I see him as a scared little boy looking for love, and a playmate and brother.”
Neither Mammana nor Bradley think the story is one of two closeted gay men living lives of dual torment, then tormenting others, before finding love with each other. Certainly the play suggests we are all actors of some kind in the carnival of life we participate in every day.
Both Warren and Brown seem to understand their apparent homosexuality at some points, then be in denial of it, retreat from it, or just unaware of it.
That Mammana and Bradley also play the men the actors entrap makes its own point about slippery identity, and the multitudes we contain.
The story is personal to Mammana: he was a policeman from 2002-2006 in Glendale, California. “I did arrest people. I don’t understand the point of police work unless it’s to get your hands dirty,” he says.
He was unaware of the history of entrapment of men who have sex with men by police. Having performed the play has made Mammana aware that while the officers may have believed in what they were doing, it was also “morally reprehensible” for them to do so. “It was a really bad law, and they’re still creating bad laws today.”
Mammana left the police, frustrated “that you were required to have a lack of empathy to do a very difficult job. People were being sent to jail for silly things. My heart was not in it. I had to watch this revolving door of the justice system, which while not broken was very, very damaged—although I have the utmost respect for officers who do their jobs well.”
Both Mammana and Bradley are straight, and the former says he finds The Twentieth-Century Way “larger than my sexuality and the question of my sexuality. It’s about longings, combating and controlling our fears. To me, it’s less about him being gay, and more about what is beneficial to him in that moment. The play is about truth, and accepting the truth of each other—whatever that is.”
Fun Home, Mammana says, “is not my story. I’m not a lesbian cartoonist who had a father who killed himself because he couldn’t come out. But it’s a really good musical that reaches out to everyone. I hope the same is true for our play—you don’t have to be like the men in the play in any way to feel for them. I may not be a gay man, but that doesn’t mean I can’t understand what it is to long, love, or try and understand these men’s struggles.”
For Bradley, while “oppression and sexual identity is central to the play,” he sees it as a story of two different kinds of people, “one full of hate, violence and bitterness (Warren), and the other (Bradley) who takes all that deceit and rage and turns it into something beautiful. It’s also about the power of acting and performance.”
“Yes, doing this play is intense,” he laughs. “Robert Mammana is an ex-cop, and very good with the handcuffs. I’m yelled at, molested, stripped, have my pants pulled down, and thrown around—even if it’s pretend it does have an effect on you. It’s impossible not to be changed every time you do it.”
It’s also hard, even as an actor, to be beaten up and shouted at every night, says Bradley. But Bradley recalls Willem Dafoe electing to carry a heavy cross while filming The Last Temptation of Christ rather than a light one, on the basis that—as Bradley puts it—“then you don’t have to worry about acting.” He feels the same way about getting worked over on stage: it helps make both men’s characters seem as real as possible.
Mammana tells me he throws Bradley around at different moments to keep the element of surprise, and both men on edge and performances fresh.
Even though Bradley should have more bruises, it’s Mammana who broke his hand throwing a chair one night. Warren always wants to go further, to play harder, perform more.
But, as Mammana says, “we don’t want you to leave the theater feeling safe and comfortable. This story really happened. It’s still happening. And it happened to the actors in front of you.” The play ends with nudity and a moment of intimacy, and the notion that there is no more hiding—for anyone. “It’s a complicated moment,” says Mammana. “The idea of Will and I kissing one another is not something we’d venture to do in our daily lives. But we are most absolutely our characters at that moment in the play.”
If The Twentieth-Century Way can do anything positive it would be to remind LGBT people of their history, says Jacobson, who—fascinated by history himself—is currently working on another play centered around priests and the mysterious deaths of boys at what was L.A.’s Bimini Baths spa in the early 1900s.
“I don’t think young people have a sense of that history,” the playwright says. “I hope people relate to the characters in the play across the generations. Warren and Brown are not heroes. They are heinous, but within them and the other characters, I hope people see someone like themselves.”
The Twentieth-Century Way is at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, New York, until July 19: book online or on 866-811-4111