Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
Letting the Days Go By
September 27, 2011
Is it me or are the comedies of George S. Kaufman enjoying a spirited revival at the moment? I feel they are everywhere from Chicago’s Goodman Theater, which produced an excellent Animal Crackers in 2009, a feat that Oregon Shakespeare Festival will try to reproduce next season. Meanwhile, American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco will jump into the act today with the opening of Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Once in a Lifetime from 1930. I saw a preview of the show over the weekend in San Francisco and can tell you already that it’s deliriously funny with incredibly sharp wit. The plot is simple and familiar enough. Three down on their luck vaudevillians, May, Jerry, and George, leave behind their act in New York for the Hollywood gold-rush of the late 1920s when talking pictures made the movie industry seem like the motherlode for actors and wanna be stars. The three partners head out west with plans to start an elocution school to train silent film stars how to speak. It’s all very Singin’ in the Rain without the musical numbers.
But as familiar as this material may be with its jokes about how the less one knows, the faster they’ll rise in Hollywood, the production is surprisingly fresh. You can’t let your guard down in this show for an instant, which is filled with more great one liners than a dozen contemporary Broadway shows. When May meets her old friend and now famous Hollywood gossip columnist Helen on a train out west, she hatches a scheme to enlist her powerful friend in furthering her and her friends’ career goals. May chats her friend Helen up about her relationship with a powerful studio boss who passed on getting in on the ground floor with the talkies.
HELEN So he buys everything now! Why – he just signed that famous playwright – you know, May – that Armenian who writes all those wonderful plays and things. MAY Noel Coward. HELEN That’s Right!
Intermixed between the scenes in the show are film clips, both real and imagined, from the period to highlight the output of the Hollywood machine of the period. It’s all very spirited fun and works well due to an excellent ensemble cast. There is the simple George Lewis who may be more prepared to run a studio than anyone expects, here played by Patrick Lane opposite a street smart Julia Coffey as May. René Augesen is the nosy and wily Helen Hobart and the slow on the uptake executive secretary Miss Leighton played by Nick Gabriel in a deft piece of cross-gender casting. But it is Mark Rucker’s bubbling, fizzy direction that really keeps the show afloat. It’s a fleet two-and-a-half hours that flies by even when Kaufman and Hart’s original premise gets a little too repetitive for its own good. The period look of the show is fantastic as well, with Alex Jaeger’s flapper dresses and smart suits amidst the grand-looking art deco studio offices and trendy restaurants of an imaginary Los Angeles. It’s a gem of a show that makes comedy look easy. Forget your troubles and go see it through Oct 16.