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A CurtainUp Review
Once In A Lifetime

The last time I visited the Atlantic Theater Company's Chelsea home, its stage was decked out as the grungy living room-kitchen which served as the battleground for the dark comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Dark contemporary plays are in fact the sort most commonly found in this theater. Now, the company has taken a giant step back in time and mood with a revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1930 comic extravaganza Once in a Lifetime which had audiences laughing steadily through 401 performances.

The runaway success of Leenane certainly entitles the company to celebrate with an established hit that calls for the sort of big cast, multi-set splash it can't usually afford. Maybe another upbeat turn in its fortunes, a development deal with a film company (Tribeca), makes Once In a Lifetime a particularly apt choice since it was Kaufman and Hart's first collaboration, (in fact pretty much of a first of anything for Hart who was only twenty six at the time), and the first in a long line of movieland putdown spoofs that include the Atlantic's own David Mamet's Speed-the Plow. Whatever the reason for the revival, it has landed on the small Atlantic stage replete with twenty-one actors who are delectably and amusingly outfitted by Meg Neville and with its three acts and two ten minute intermissions intact.

The man in charge of sets is James Noone whose many feats of stage wizardry included recreating the original set of Dead End with the addition of a real East River pool for the Williamstown Theatre (see link at end). Besides creating four sets he has here built a golden proscenium. It's a deft metaphoric introduction to the end of the golden era of silent movies and the advent of the even more golden era of talking pictures -- a world where all that glitters is often tinsel. Alas, this last is also true of this production which, for all its '30s authenticity and flair, has too many dead spots to sustain the sort of laughter that led critic George Jean Nathan to write after the original production: "I laughed so steadily that everyone thought it must be a couple of other fellows from Ft. Wayne (his home town)".

To be sure, it isn't all flat and unrewarding. Some of the stars the director David Pittu has assembled come as close to giving solid gold performances as their roles allow. Topping the list is Johanna Day as the wise-cracking May. She and her two down-and-out vaudevillian cohorts --Jerry her boyfriend (Tony Carlin) and George (John Ellison Conlee) their good-natured but dumb straight man, spend so much time in the automat that she's sure "we'd sleep there if a bed would fit in one of them slots. " When Jerry sees a talking picture and decides Hollywood is the new gold rush capital, it's May who suggests opening a voice culture school. Day's portrayal has the smart about life, sappy in love wryness that put Eve Arden at the top of the Golden Oldie movie hit parade.

Also terrific is Cynthia Darlow as an odiously self-important Louella Parson-ish gossip columnist who helps them infiltrate the studio of a Goldwyn-like movie mogul who yearns for the good old silent days when "even if you turned out a good picture you made money." Larry Bryggman does an amusing caricature of that mogul, as does Peter Jacobson in the role of a manic director à la Eric Von Stroheim. John Conlee as the dumbell who manages to crack Hollywood as easily as he cracks nuts with his teeth is another amusing but not quite as sharply defined caricature.

The cast also deserve credit for deftly doubling and tripling up to play the minor and walk through parts needed to bring the farce to its frenzied finale. These minor players include: two "unspeakable" (and unspeakably dumb) silent screen beauties, Phyllis Fontaine (Leslie Beatty) and Florabel Leigh (Isabel Keating); as reminders of the good old silent days, there are two pages (Chris Carley, Brad Glasser) in eighteenth century regalia who arrive periodically, (and at least twice too often), carrying posters with brief news announcements about Mr. Glogauger-Goldwyn's doings; a ditzy receptionist (Susan Knight) dressed in an evening gown; a would- be actress (Kate Blumberg) with stage mom (Amelia White) in tow.

To play a frustrated and ignored writer named Lawrence Vail, "one of a shipment of sixteen playwrights," director David Pittu has cast himself. This is a slyly witty touch of historic accuracy since when George S. Kaufman directed the play in New York he also played this role, as did Moss Hart when he staged it on the West Coast. Unfortunately it's something of a misstep. It's not that Pittu is a terrible actor, though from what I know about this play Lawrence Vail was not the nebbish as portrayed but a famous playwright who happened to be treated like a nebbish. The real problem with this bit of insider cleverness is that Mr. Pittu needed to concentrate all his energies on on finding a key to give this production something beyond its nostalgia value.

This makes comparisons to June Moon,another Kaufman revival ( co-authored with Ring Lardner) inevitable. Anyone seeing both shows will recognize many common elements, with June Moon having a starting gate edge in dealing with a less overdone aspect of show business (song writing). The crucial difference, however, is that June Moon revolved around real people more than caricatures which enabled its director to tap into timeless emotional undercurrents (such as Lardner's own disappointment with not realizing his lifelong dream of being a song writer). Once In a Lifetime was written in a straight classical farce style with hearsay about Hollywood, (neither Kaufman or Hart had ever had even a toe in a Hollywood studio). The then popular style of farce was dominated by caricatures.

Perhaps if Mr. Pittu had been able to find a way to emphasize the bittersweet aspects of May's final triumph, Once In a Life Time would be worth playing once again. Unfortunately he chose to go with an "as is" approach in which the caricatures triumph over real people. While this may be the only way to do it, surely a tuck and trim here and there would have helped to keep some of those dead spots to a minimum.

Other George S. Kaufman Plays:
June Moon
You Can't Take It With You
A more recent Hollywood spoof: Mizlansky/Zilinsky
Mentioned Reviews:
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Dead End
Act One : An Autobiographyby Moss Hart (1988 paperback, St. Martin's). Moss Hart's still highly autobiography about theater in its glamorous heyday-- with many insights abouthis work as a collaborator.
Three Plays by Kaufman and Hart : Once in a Lifetime/You Can't Take It With You/the Man Who Came to Dinner a 1988 anthology published by Grove Press.

Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Directed by David Pittu
With David Pittu, Larry Bryggman, Kate Blumberg, Ron Butler, Tony Carlin, Johanna Day, Peter Jacobson, Amelia White, Susan Knight, Cynthia Darlow, Ron Butler, Leslie Beatty, Brad Glasser, Nina Hellman, Isabel Keating, Jennifer Rau, Herb Rubens, Charles Tuthill, Chris Carley, Michael Downling and Livia Newman
Sets: James Noone
Lighting: Howard Werner
Costumes: Meg Neville
Atlantic Theatre, 336 West 20th St., (212/ 239-6200). Performances begin 5/16; opens 5/31
And closing after a very brief lifetime on June 18th! Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

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© Elyse Sommer, June 1998