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Ben Hecht: Child of the Century

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Ben Hecht: Child of the Century, at Victory Gardens Studio Theater.

Most one-man stage biographies are a little dull, catching their subjects in attitudes of reflection and repose. Invariably we meet them in their studies, where they sit smugly beneath shelves of leather-bound volumes and pour themselves ice water, greeting us from a time when the ambition that ignited their success has started to fade.

J.R. Sullivan sets his well-researched, entertaining Ben Hecht: Child of the Century in 1939, after Hecht had abandoned his reckless pursuit of fame as a bloodthirsty cub reporter and fledgling scriptwriter but before he became an outspoken critic of the Roosevelt administration and supporter of a Jewish state in Palestine. Sullivan's Hecht is an incomparably witty evening companion, but he lacks the piss and vinegar of a coauthor of The Front Page, whose mouth got him fired from a 1950s TV talk show.

The best parts of this biography, which Sullivan has adapted largely from Hecht's own memory book Child of the Century, are the fiery reminiscences of his old Chicago newspaper days, when he pilfered photos of deceased crime victims and finagled juicy interviews with prostitutes and death-row inmates. When Hecht leaves Chicago for Broadway and Hollywood, the show flags. There's a spellbinding anecdote about fallen silent-screen idol John Gilbert, but otherwise Sullivan's name-dropping, contemplative Hecht simply dishes the dirt on numerous luminaries. The gossip is amusing, and Sullivan (whose show premiered at the New American Theatre in Rockford in 1972) delivers it wittily and compellingly. But like much of the rest of this diverting but uncontroversial play, it rarely inspires anything beyond nostalgia and occasional laughs.

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