Milliners — all 12 of you still practicing that noble craft — should not get too excited about “Important Hats of the Twentieth Century,” a new comedy by Nick Jones that opened on Monday at City Center in aManhattan Theater Club production. A parade of historic headgear does not feature in Mr. Jones’s frothy but chiffon-thin play about rivalrous fashion designers, semi-mad scientists and time travel.
Mr. Jones’s woolly fantasy, set mostly in 1937, with frequent flights to 1998, begins like a film noir, with a reporter arriving at the scene of a crime. T. B. Doyle, played with funny, square-jawed seriousness by John Behlmann, is interrogating a police officer about a break-in at the laboratory of the “brilliant overweight scientist” Dr. Cromwell (Remy Auberjonois).
The cop seems a bit vague about the device purloined and the supposedly grave implications of its theft (“You know these scientists — they think the whole world revolves around science — ha!”), but he’s quite taken with Doyle’s hat, which he finds quite “chic.” We are clearly in fantasyland when beat cops are tossing around lingo like that in 1937.
Also from fantasyland: Although he has been dispatched to dig into this crime, Doyle primarily covers the fashion beat. One doubts that there were many male — or even female — reporters dedicated to covering the world of ready-to-wear back then. Well, no matter. Mr. Jones, the author of the similarly fanciful but rather weightier play “Verité,” allows his admirably freewheeling imagination to run amok here.
We soon learn that the contraption stolen from Dr. Cromwell is, yes, a hat of sorts, but one that allows the wearer to travel through time. It has been swiped by Paul Roms (Matthew Saldivar), a fashion designer down on his luck. His colleague in the trade, the immensely more successful Sam Greevy (Carson Elrod), is aghast when he visits Paul’s small boutique and finds him at work on a most unusual garment, something Paul calls a sweatshirt.
Learning that it can be worn by man or woman, Sam implores Paul to come to his senses. “You can’t treat a woman like a potato, Paul,” he admonishes. “She needs to feel beautiful. She wants to make an impression.”
With the aid of Dr. Cromwell’s time-leaping chapeau, Paul has been making stealth visits to the future, specifically the closet of 16-year-old Jonathan (Jon Bass): “Mom! Have you seen my blue sweatshirt?” He’s whining about having to wear a hideous aunt-knitted sweater when out of the closet pops Paul, who grabs a knit cap from Jonathan’s bed and pops back in again, only to disappear.
Mr. Jones writes frisky, sometimes absurdist comic dialogue that comes at you from all angles. When Doyle, who is also Sam’s lover (although Sam is married and has a child), tells him that those crazy ideas of Paul’s are starting to catch on, a suddenly anxious Sam demands to know more.
“That’s just the word on the street,” Doyle responds. Beat. “A homeless man told me.”
But the plot of “Important Hats” resembles something from one of the more outlandish collections cooked up by the Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons: It has stray bits poking out here and there, and while undeniably inventive, it isn’t exactly wearable, to continue the metaphor.
By which I mean coherent. At some point talk turns to “eerie glowing orbs” floating around New York City; these are apparently somehow caused by Paul’s time-traveling: “You’re ripping holes in the fabric of time and space,” Dr. Cromwell moans. All the talk about orbs still feels rather tangential to the primary plot, which finds Doyle and Sam trying to ferret out the secret of Paul’s revolutionary ideas: White leather shoes he calls sneakers! Denim pants that expose the upper regions of the wearer’s rear end!
While it’s amusing for a while to imbibe the perplexity that contemporary fashion might cause for ordinary folk from decades past, the novelty wears off, and Mr. Jones’s play rattles along waywardly, spinning into a confused quasi-farce.
But while the play may lack substance, the production has style to spare. It’s directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel with the same pedal-to-the-floor intensity he brings to “Hand to God” on Broadway. The sets, by Timothy R. Mackabee, are inventive and stylish, as are the natty costumes, by Jennifer Moeller.
Best of all, the cast members fling themselves into the dizzy frolics with terrific verve. Mr. Elrod, an expert comedian, has said he modeled his performance on the veteran costume designer William Ivey Long. He certainly looks the part, in dapper, elegant clothes, round eyeglasses and a mop of dark curly hair. And he brings his customary wiry energy to the role, as the increasingly desperate Sam tries to play catch-up with the suddenly hot Paul. As the fashion pioneer, Mr. Saldivar has a fierce, broody presence; here is a man for whom designing clothes is both a righteous calling and a deadly serious business, worth killing for.
Most of the nine cast members play several roles, expertly. Marie Elena Ramirez is excellent as Jonathan’s bewildered mother as well as Doyle’s aggrieved wife, among others. Packed into a nifty fat suit, Mr. Auberjonois rants with wild-eyed intensity as Cromwell and brings a nice period flair to another role as a radio announcer. All seem in tune with Mr. Jones’s deadpan humor, which gives his dialogue plenty of comic bite even when the plot starts fraying at the seams.
Describing to an outraged Sam the aesthetic appeal of those abominable saggy jeans, Paul reverently says, “These pants are beautiful for dramatizing the struggle of remaining clothed.”