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A CurtainUp Review
Important Hats of the Twentieth Century
By Elyse Sommer
Playwright Nick Jones certainly seems to remember Rand's over-romanticized, best-selling paean to individuality. Paul Roms amd Sam Greevy, the central characters of Important Hats of the Twentieth Century, (the Vassar College originated Studio 42's first collaboration with Manhattan Theatre Club), are easily seen as Roark and Keating's counterparts in the fashion world.
Of course Jones is quite an individualist himself. His own career is a bit of a Roark-Keating mash-up. His quirky 2003 play Trevor was about a depressed chimpanzee played by a human. It wasn't geared to a mass audience, but Jones successfully courted mainstream success as a writer and producer of the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black.
Despite the rather obvious inspiration for Important Hats. . . it is ultimately 100% Nick Jones — his own satirical spin on the tale of two creative rivals. His setting is the fashion world of 1930s New York. Rather than a soapy, idealistic romance, what you get is a rambunctious farce with a generous dose of sci-fi weirdness. That weirdness, which threaten Greevy's "King of Dresses" standing, gives Roms' vision an uncanny futuristic twist. While we time travel only as far as 1997, Roms's comfortable everyman-woman clothes look exactly like what is still hot today and tagged with both mass market and high end designer labels.
Naturally Roms's "visionary" sweat shirts and track suits catch on. The hats of the title don't refer to the ubiquitous peaked caps. Instead they're bizarre helmets that accommodate the actual time-traveling and the ever more zany sub-plot that takes us back and forth between 1937 and 1997.
Though Greevy and Roms are the central characters the cast also includes others; notably Greevy's boyfriend, the fashion reporter T. B. Doyle (John Behlmann); Cromwell (Remy Auberjonois), a grossly overweight mad scientist; and a young stoner in the 1997 segments whose clothes are stolen by their time traveling time machine hatted creator.
The fashion background gives Jones a chance to air some smart social commentary. Since the wild and wooly situations do come with a whiff of a Saturday Night Live skit, especially in the overly long and second act. Consequently, Important Hats. . . isn't quite the trenchant satire it wants to be. However, it is a lot of fun.
Though falling short of its ambition for depth as well as hilarious, director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel and the talented cast wrest every ounce of fun from the wacky plot. Carson Elrod, who I've liked a lot before, is terrific as the self-absorbed, success crazed Sam Greevy. He sounds and even manages to look like the super successful Broadway show costumer William Ivey who's his role model for playing Greevy.
Remy Auberjonois, another seasoned comic actor, is delightfully hard to recognize as Dr. Cromwell. Like most of the ensemble he deftly multi-tasks. No one is fazed by the quick turnarounds needed to change into different costumes and hair pieces (fine work by Jennifer Moeller and Leah J. Loukas). Timothy R. Mackabee ccreates scenic variety without fancy technology. Jason Lyons lighting is another design highlight, especially so during the detour to Roms' factory.
Manhattan Theatre Club is to be commended for partnering with a young company like Studio 42. ven mEore commendable is their managing to present them at an affordable $30 price for five weeks of the run.
A note about those comfortable everyman/woman sweatshirts and pants that seem shanghaied from much later design rooms: Paul Roms is not based on some 1930s Calvin Klein. These type of clothes were introduced by Champion Products, a company formed formed in 1919 by brothers Abe and Bill Fainbloom, as the Knickerbocker Knitting Company to manufacture sturdy sweaters. The company expanded with a heavy-duty cotton it patented as Reverse-Weave. The Champion sweatshirts fashioned from that material were just part of their many athletic wear best sellers.