‘Once in a Lifetime’
By George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Directed by Mark Rucker
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco
Sept. 22-Oct. 16, 2011
Hooray for Hollywood! “Once in a Lifetime,” the 1930 George S. Kaufman–Moss Hart send-up of everything cinematic would be lost without the types (and stereotypes) of Tinsel Town. As it is, it’s one of the funniest shows to come down the freeway in a long time. A little like “Singin’ in the Rain” – without the singin’ and dancin’ – it’s set in 1927, right on the cusp of the talkies revolution. A down-on-its-luck vaudeville trio decides to head out West, re-inventing itself as an “elocution school,” to cash in on the discrepancies between the silent screen and the spoken word. Sound familiar?
Once there, they encounter a whole new breed. There’s Helen Hobart, the uber-influential gossip columnist, played to the brash hilt by Rene Augesen; Herman Glogauer (the very funny Will LeBow) as a picture perfect studio head and his secretary, Miss Leighton (Nick Gabriel, who almost steals the show in Vampira-like drag) and Rudolph Kammerling, the famous German director (Kevin Rolston). And then, of course, there is The Girl, Ashley Wickett as the no-talent hopeful who ends up positively huge, darling. And more: a pair of silent screen beauties who can’t talk to save their lives (Jessica Kitchens and Marisa Duchovny) as well as a writer, imported from New York with a whole bunch of others and then isolated and ignored until he has a nervous breakdown (Alexander Crowther). And then a gaggle of cigarette girls, stage mothers, chauffeurs, pages, painters and electricians, not to mention the four Shlepkin Brothers, owners of a rival studio.
Cast of thousands (or so it seems, with many actors doubling and tripling in roles). You’ll laugh (a whole lot, especially at the movies, cleverly inter-cut to cover the scene changes (Alexander V. Nichols’ video design)! You’ll cry (not really, unless it’s from laughing too hard)! You’ll fall in love, especially with Julia Coffey, the talented actress who anchors the show as the female third of the vaudeville group and the only one with any sense on the stage. Coffey is new to the San Francisco scene, but she’s acted almost everywhere else in the country and she does it extremely well. Mae, her character, is the kind of wisecracking dame once played by the likes of Rosalind Russell and Eve Arden. She has one fatal weakness though; she is in love with Jerry (John Wernke) another (and the handsomest) member of the act. But, when Jerry “goes Hollywood” on her, Mae jumps ship, leaving the dumbest member of the former troupe, George (Patrick Lane), to fend for himself as the newly-appointed head of operations at Glogauer Productions, a living embodiment of Murphy’s Law. Lane is very, very good as well, and his habit of cracking the nuts that he constantly consumes will become the funniest gag in “Lifetime” before the end.
Kaufman was great on humor – not so hot on sentiment – and the romances are a little iffy. George is “nuts” (get it?) about The Girl but they are both so dumb you don’t really care. And Mae’s fixation on the self-absorbed Jerry is somewhat hard to understand. You kind of wish she’d end up with the writer, especially after a really good scene, added by the authors just before opening night, where they unburden themselves to each other on a train heading back to New York.
But nothing is perfect – except maybe Daniel Ostling’s quick-changing sets that go from a seedy hotel room to a fancy Hollywood hotel, a sound stage to the aforementioned train, with a few stops in between. Or Alex Jaeger’s period-perfect costumes. Mark Rucker directs the nonstop romp with a sure hand and a high sense of humor. It’s not the sort of thing I’d want to see over and over, but once in a lifetime it’s terrific.