Granted, Nick Jones's Important Hats of the Twentieth Century is probably 15 or 20 minutes too long, should probably be played in one act instead of two and goes a bit wilder than it needs to in the second half. None of that, however, detracts significantly from one of the most delightfully original comedies to show up in these parts for far too long a stretch.
It's this reviewer's devout wish that Jones's effervescent party favor, now at Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II, sells out there, moves to a Broadway house soon after and wows audiences way into the future.
As the lights bump up on a man standing in a square of designer Jason Lyons's light, we're in 1937, and the man, nattily dressed but without jacket or hat, steps off his riser, takes a suit jacket and overcoat from a nearby rack and a hat from a different rack. He's handsome fashion reporter T. B Doyle (John Behlmann) off to cover a seemingly non-fashion story involving the disappearance of a supposed death machine invented by round-faced, big-bellied scientist Dr. Cromwell (Remy Auberjonois), a reporter-hating eccentric.
The audience has learned that Doyle is having an affair with couturier Sam Greevy (Carson Elrod, apparently modeling his character after costume designer William Ivey Long--"Greevy"/"Ivey"--get it?). And Greevy, who's about to be known as the "King of Dresses," is concerning himself with former fashion-schoolmate and potential rival Paul Roms (Matthew Saldivar), a determined nutcase of a different fashion stripe.
You see, in this comedic fireworks display, Roms is creating sweatshirts and tracksuits that at first Greevy pooh-poohs but changes his attitude when Roms's line starts to catch on. At that point, the hyperkinetic Greevy, greatly admired for his elaborate gowns--usually introduced by (unseen) popular singer Julie Bourdain--starts worrying about the equally, if not more, hyperkinetic Roms.
Roms is so hyperkinetic that in one of Jones's hilarious shifting scenes, we're abruptly lurched into 1998 and a bedroom occupied by rebellious, slovenly teen Jonathan (Jon Bass). He's been slacking off there when a man in a metal helmet bursts from his closet and just as quickly disappears back inside.
Jonathan has no clue to the event and can't convince parents Darryl (Triney Sandoval) and Bev (Maria Elena Ramirez) that he isn't fabricating the incident out of, um, whole cloth, but we recognize the interloper as the devious Roms. We even have a strong clue to how Greevy's frenemy is coming up with his futuristic design notions and, more than that, we're keyed into the current whereabouts of Dr. Cromwell's missing device.
At that point, Jones's cavalcade of lively scenes multiplies yet more geometrically. Numerous additional characters, all played by some of the above-mentioned comedians--plus Reed Campbell and Henry Vick--pop up among set designer Mathew R. Mackabee's moving door and wardrobe racks. Vick, for instance, is a scamming figure called Jimmy the Button Man.
Soon enough, someone (I think it's either Vick or Behlmann, but maybe not) gets into hooded black tights in order to manipulate a puppet butterfly at the end of a metal rod. The butterfly is on hand to remind us of the old butterfly-in-the-stream theory of fooling around with the future by altering the past through use of a time machine.
And that's only one of the more literate jokes Jones cracks throughout Important Hats of the Twentieth Century. (Greevy, we're told, designed the fedora that Doyle gives away early on, leading a reviewer to wonder why replicas of this important 20th-century hat aren't being hawked in the Manhattan Theatre Club lobby.)
The sight gags and the lines proliferate, a number of them bouncing off the walls in non-sequitur splendor--"Do I need to confuse you with innuendoes?" is how one goes. Another of the abundant crop of funny lines has Dr. Cromwell chatting about the serum he's concocted to make "cats less selfish." Jones has a million of 'em.
And let's have a few words about the jolly time Jennifer Moeller has with the costumes that eventually skip through not centuries but millennia. All sorts of sounds are required of sound designer Palmer Hefferan, who not only contributes original music of his making but, as the audience is settling in, some mood-establishing renditions of Cole Porter ditties.
While the chicanery is exploding like excessively heated vials over a Bunsen Burner, it can seem as if Important Hats of the Twentieth Century is merely inspired silliness, not that in this context "merely" is any kind of drawback. But there's more to Jones's madness. He's having his laugh--no, his guffaw--at the hold fashion has on society.
More immediately, he's chuckling up one well-tailored sleeve and down another at the dismal hoodie/track suit look prevalent today. The audience chortled in unison at the following outburst: "The things people wear to the theater!" And, yessirree, some of those gleefully haha-ing were wearing the exact styles mentioned in Jones's list.
By now, habitual theatergoers know what a valuable clown we have in Elrod, who's crowned by Leah J. Loukas's version of William Ivey Long's tousled coiffure. Elrod's a natural and has been showing off his instinctive mastery of comic performance for some time. The joy of him is that he's always the same but always different. At his very entrance, he's someone you begin laughing at and with.
But while Elrod is the chief clown, he's surrounded by a coterie of accomplished funsters. Saldivar, for whom this is a notable change of pace, turns Roms's intensity into something to behold. Behlmann's laugh getting in the Cary Grant mold is terrific. Auberjonois and Sandoval score in their various roles, as does Ramirez, who's called on to demonstrate a wide range of lovable fools.
Just call this an outstanding ensemble, and bow low to director Moritz von Stuelpnagel for seeing that they are outstanding. Remember that von Stuelpnagel, who's run the now-disbanding Studio 42, helmed Hand to God and presided over earlier Jones projects. It makes great sense to look forward to whatever he does next and after that and after that.
Okay, as Jones's tropes expand he loses control for a while, but so what? That he has so many to fire off is worth celebrating. They're behind the jolt to the mind and the tickle to the funny bone that Important Hats of the Twentieth Century is.