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A CurtainUp Review
The Time of Your Life
By Elyse Sommer
Now I don't do anything. I live all the time. Then I go to sleep —-William Saroyan
Who but that adventurous little theatrical engine that could and did bring us a wonderful revival of Eugene O'Neill's first Pulitzer Prize winner, Beyond the Horizon, would undertake to revive The Time of Your Life, William Saroyan's sprawling, ode to the little people who like all people have a right -- no, an obligation-- "to live all the time." Only a large regional nonprofit like the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which two seasons ago re-mounted Dead End with a cast of 44, (see link) can top artistic director Claire Higgin's willingness to dust off such theatrical artifacts with just a few actors playing double roles.
That term artifacts brings me up short in my admiration for Chain Lightning's mission. Much as I appreciate this rare opportunity to have a look a a play awarded the Pulitzer Prize (refused by the playwright because it was "neither better or worse than anything else he'd written) and New York Drama Critics Award, a theatrical artifact is all we get. As Les Gutman pointed out last season the company's luminous revival of Beyond the Horizon (see link), was true to the play and overcame the structural criticisms originally leveled against it. No small measure of this success was attributable to the actors' perfect understanding of their characters and the director's ability to condense the four hour version without any sense that anything had been cut from the original language.
A large segment of the cast of The Time Of Your Life fails to capture Saroyan's essence: basically non-reflective joie de vivre and use of this drama as a meeting place for important nobodies who are important because they are as one of the original reviewers put it "human beings engaged in occupying a soul". Chain Lightening's resident set designer Meganne George has created a solidly naturalistic San Francisco waterfront dive (euphemistically dubbed Nick's Saloon and Entertainment Palace by Saroyan). In addition to a small performance platform which at one point doubles as a hotel bedroom, an upright piano, and the swinging door through which the many characters enter and exit, there are other nice detail touches: old photos, trophies, a model sail boat and a one of those signed and framed dollar bills new business owners call short snorters and mount for good luck. Unfortunately, the atmosphere is so heavy with gloom and despair that there's little sense of this being the optimistic comedy that it was meant to be.
The central character, a mysterious rich man named Joe (Munro M. Bonnell), initially seems more a threatening presence than the benign champagne guzzler (champagne gives him interesting thoughts) who is the catalyst helping at least some of the saloon denizens to turn their lives around. Brandee Graff's interpretation of Kitty Duval, the whore who mourns her aspirations for being an actress and beloved do-gooder wife, is all tearful and dispirited with nary a speck of the grit.
Duncan M. Rogers is more successful and consistent in portraying the proprietor whose tough exterior covers a heart of gold. This is also true of several others: Edmund Day's tall tale telling Kit Carson; Karl Herlinger's Harry who wants a job as a dancer so he can make people happy (in the original program he was tagged "a natural born dancer" which Gene Kelly who then played him of course was); Rob Skolts as Dudley a young man in love and Laura Porio as Elsie whose job as nurse makes her temporarily lose faith in the power of that love.
On the whole however, most of the actors move like sleepwalkers in a dreary and overly long parad and there simply isn't enough of Saroyan's belief in the power of hope. What's more, since the cross-cutting from one character's story to the next is no longer an innovation, as it was in 1939, many of the small parts and episodes seem self indulgently repetitious if not superfluous. The newsboy who arrives once too often expecting Joe to buy up all his papers is a case in point. (Phillip Langer, whose father directed the first production recalls that many parts were in fact patched in by Saroyan to accommodate his numerous Armenian cousins.).
I don't like to compare a production with limited financial resources with one that has deep enough pockets to afford an outstanding big name star and a design team to help work someinnovative miracles Yet it's hard not to think of another play filled with denizens of a bar, The Iceman Cometh which recently had a high profile, big star revival. Whatever the contributing factors, and O'Neill's merits over Saroyan's are part of the equation, that revival made four hours palatable to audiences who've become accustomed to 90-minute intermissionless plays. This one unfortunately does not warrant the nearly three hours it takes to get to its final and only dramatic high.
If I had to hand out marks, I'd still give the company an A for trying and daring to fail.
Consumer Information: Check out the East Village Navigational Guide we posted when we last reviewed a play at this venue. It will help audiences enjoy their visit to this charming theater in a neighborhood mistakenly considered unsafe by some out-of-towners or Upper East Siders.
Beyond the Horizon
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