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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Time of Your Life

Cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, longshoremen and finks.— Nick
They're all guys who are trying to be happy; trying to make a living; support a family; bring up children; enjoy sleep; go to a movie; take a drive on Sunday. They're all good guys, so out of nowhere, comes trouble. —Krupp
Andrew Weems as Joe and Sofia Jean Gomez as Kitty Duval in The Time of Your Live
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
The similarities between William Saroyan's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1940 play and Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh are notable. It is not just that they both take place in seedy saloons and are peopled with society's dropouts (dozens of plays use that device), but that they also appear to be resoundingly complementary in their opposing perspectives.

Ironically, Iceman was written in 1939, the same year that Saroyan's play opened on Broadway. Iceman, however, wasn't produced until 1946, leaving one to wonder if Saroyan's odd-ball optimism didn't serve to kindle O'Neill's need to have Icemanreveal a more objectified and pessimistic view of disenfranchised lives. Whatever the similarities and coincidences, both are considered masterpieces even though both got rapped by as many critics in their time as praised. If O'Neill's play has stood the test of time a little better, Saroyan's irrepressibly messy but amusingly incredulous play comes back at the right time.

Many of us are looking, perhaps in vain, for just this kind of nostalgic idealism. If we find Saroyan's gentle perspective of mankind hard to locate in real life, let it at least be alive and well in the theater. Nick's Pacific Street saloon restaurant and entertainment palace is, unlike Harry Hope's bar in The Iceman Cometh, a place where the drifters still entertain dreams for the future. In fact, to entertain seems to be the purpose of both Saroyan and the habitués of Nick's. One doubts, however, whether any agent worth his ten percent would dream of signing up the slapdash assortment of musical and terpsichorean talent that finds its way to the foot of San Francisco's Embarcadero.

Director Paul Mullins does his best to direct our attention to what is central in the play despite having to interweave and discharge Saroyan's living panorama of activity with a semblance of reality. Unlike O'Neill's mostly despondent and inebriated crew, a few of Saroyan's 21 characters are visionary activists— angry but idealistic, pathetic but also purposeful. It's a tough job that Mullins pulls off in the face of the play's refusal to behave itself. Full of political, social and philosophical ranting and raving, the curious mix of the hoi polloi, establishment and downtrodden characters go up and down the stairs, stick around a while, leave and return again and again— only to pick up where they left off, some actually destined to resolve a personal issue.

Saroyan's characters continue being endearingly eccentric and peripheral when necessary. So that we can focus our sights on one or two at a time Mullins uses occastional freeze tableaus that work impressively though a bit self-consciously. James Wolk's set is one of the more evocative and eye-catching of the season showcasing besides the usual saloon fixtures, the bar itself. Its distinction being a lovely pastoral mural set within the bar's decorative frame. The characters in the saloon below remain en tableau for virtually the length of the short bedroom scene that opens Act II. The way the center section of the saloon does a complete swivel to reveal a bedroom is a stunner.

Performances are everything in this comedy of alienated souls looking for love and meaning in their lives in the midst of social unrest. While a full scale strike of longshoreman is going on outside, the forlorn inside are periodically brutalized by Blick, a despicable vice cop, as played with a stern viciousness by Christopher Burns.

The magic of Saroyan's fantasy is joyously conjured up even as the harsher realities of these drifters' lives occasionally surface. It is impossible not to recall O'Neill's saloon savior Hickey as we watch Joe, a sort of Father Goose with gumption and money to burn, guide the destinies of a pair of lovers. As Joe, Andrew Weems gives an appealing and unhurriedly persuasive performance. Sofia Jean Gomez's Kitty is a prostitute with truly untarnished heart of gold, expertly avoiding every cliché in the hooker's manual. She gets more depth and poignancy than you might expect from her proverbial woman of the streets. As Tom, Joe's non-too-bright hanger on and go-fer, and Kitty's would-be lover, Ned Noyes earns our empathy with his vaguely insecure demeanor and creates a notably vintage reality.

Top acting honors, however, to Edmond Genest as Kit Carson, an old Indian fighter down on his luck. Genest milks the old whiskered geezer's convoluted and protracted tall tales for all they are worth and they earned prolonged and hearty laughter on opening night. Paul Meshejian says a lot by not saying a lot as Arab, the philosophical barfly. Delivering their musings with gusto are John Nahijian, as the longshoreman McCarthy; Sean Mahan, as a Krupp, the cop who hates his job but doesn't know what else to do, and Gregory Derelian, as Nick the saloon owner.

Salvatorre Cacciato pushes our laugh buttons, as Dudley, a love-infatuated young man. Blake Hackler wins our hearts as Harry, a young man who misguidedly believes he is a natural born hoofer and comedian, but invariably can't get anyone to laugh. Ironically there is plenty to laugh at, including (of all unlikely things) the fateful killing at the end of the play.

Despite the play's obvious flaws, it is hard not respond warmly to it and to this admirable production. It remains, above all, a simple play with a simple message, as best expressed in Saroyan's own words: "Have no shame in being kindly and gentle, but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret. In the time of your life, live — so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it."

The Time of Your Life
By William Saroyan
Directed by Paul Mullins

Cast: Andrew Weems, Gregory Derelian, Paul Meshejian, Michael Mungiello, Ned Noyes, Sofia Jean Gomez, Salvatore Cacciato, Blake Hackler, Anthony Stokes, Megan Irene Davis, Christopher Burns, Allison Daugherty, John Nahigian, Sean Mahan, Edmond Genest, Jennifer Gawlik, Carole Caton, Barry Smith
Set Design: James Wolk
Costume Design: Lora LaVon
Lighting Design: Michael Giannitti
Sound Design: Karin Graybash
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, located on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. (973)-- 408-5600
Tickets: $28 - $42
Performances: are Tuesdays through Sundays.
Opened 09/08/07 Ends 09/30/07
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/08/07

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