Hollywood Neverending

American Conservatory Theater has kicked off its season with an oddity: Once in a Lifetime, a revival of a 1930 Hollywood satire by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the writing team much, much better known for the comedies You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Will LeBow, Julia Coffey, John Wernke and Patrick Lane in Once in a Lifetime. Photo by Kevin Berne.

When the play first came out, talking pictures were still a very new thing. The first full-lenth “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, had come out only in 1927. In Once in a Lifetime, a trio of traveling vaudevillians rightly see this innovation as a game-changer and decide the show’s over for them. They give up their act and head off to Hollywood to take advantage of the chaos to set up a school of elocution for all the actors who thought all they had to do was look pretty—they didn’t know they’d have to talk.

The vaudevillians don’t really know anything about elocution or teaching, which seems like it would be a promising set up for wacky pedagogical high jinks to ensue. But there’s not much of that. It’s just a thin excuse to get them to Hollywood for a fluffy all-purpose satire of the movie business as a place full of people with too much money and no idea what they’re doing. When the protagonist May launches into a list of things she’d change if she ran Hollywood, there’s no use getting your hopes up for anything substantive. It’s all inane things like too many pages running around announcing where the studio bigwigs are. There are a lot of funny moments in the play, but there’s not much to it.

ACT’s revival is directed by new associate artistic director Mark Rucker, who had the good idea to punctuate the scene changes with musical clips from films of the period, ranging from the obvious The Jazz Singer to more obscure flicks such as Going Hollywood and Hollywood Party. Designed by Alexander V. Nichols, these clips don’t tie in much to the action of the play, although they’re sometimes thematically related, and they add a little to the show’s nearly three-hour run time, but they also add a great deal to the entertainment value. There are no film segments in the second act, between the two intermissions, and they’re badly missed. Some hilarious clips of characters doing screen tests or in scenes from a movie being made in the play are easily the best parts of the meandering third act.

Rucker’s staging is long on production value, with marvelous sets of multiple locations by Daniel Ostling and a large cast playing multiple roles in handsome period duds by Alex Jaeger. But for a comedy like this Rucker really needs to pick up the pace. There are a number of scenes with people running in and our all over the place, but many of those feel sparse here, as if everyone’s politely waiting his or her turn.

Julia Coffey is a delight as May, deftly capturing the brassy delivery of the wisecracking dames of the films of that period. Patrick Lane is amusing as the lovable dimwit George, who hardly understands what they’re doing in Hollywood in the first place; inevitably, he’s the one the studio decides is a genius.

Kaufman and Hart didn’t really flesh these characters out, so it’s up to make them memorable, and John Wernke doesn’t bring much to the table as George and May’s partner Jerry, who’s supposedly engaged to May but has no time for her once they move out West. May makes a big deal about how much Jerry’s changed and how he’s gone Hollywood, but we don’t know the guy. He doesn’t make an impression at all.

Alexander Crowther has a little much more to work with as Lawrence Veil (played originally by Kaufman and later by Hart), a playwright at the end of his rope because a studio hired him and pays him a salary but has forgotten about him entirely.  But he still comes off more as an expression of frustration more than a character, so after his overlong but still amusing scene where he gets to rant about it all (see the comment above about the pacing) it’s perplexing to see him pop up again in a way that it wouldn’t be if he had more going for him.

Still, there are plenty of more memorable characters running around. Will LeBow is pitch-perfect as movie producer Herman Glogauer, in a constant state of exasperation at everyone from waiters to cops always trying to audition for him wherever he goes, and Nick Gabriel is priceless as the infuriatingly forgetful secretary Miss Leighton. Ren Augesen has a sparkling scene as a self-involved movie critic with a pricelessly artificial laugh. (She shows up after that, too, but the script has trouble knowing what to do with characters after they’ve fulfilled their purpose.)

Ashley Wickett makes a bright-eyed, enthusiastic ingénue as George’s love interest Susan, who dreams of being a movie star despite having no talent, with Margo Hall in tow as her doting mother (as well as a train porter, a studio bigwig, et al.). Marisa Duchowny and Jessica Kitchens have entertaining turns as silent movie starlets with clownishly horrible diction.

It’s a lightweight, meandering play that doesn’t have nearly the comedic payoff it always seems to be winding up for, and it ends long after it seems like it should, but there are enough funny moments and sharp performances along the way to make it enjoyable if you don’t think too much about it. As diversions go, it’s pretty diverting.

Once in a Lifetime
Through October 16
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #93 of 2011, attended September 28.

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