Not in this Lifetime: ACT’s “Once in a Lifetime”

May (Julia Coffey), George (Patrick Lane), and Jerry (John Wernke) strike out for the West. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1930 glorious hard-boiled comedy Once in a Lifetime is a classic of American theater that rarely gets done, largely because of the huge cast required to pull it off.  The 1930 Broadway production had 37 actors in the play’s more than 50 roles, while a 1978 revival (starring John Lithgow and Treat Williams) had a 29-person ensemble.  Having been in a production in college that utilized about 30 actors, I was excited to see that ACT would be presenting the play as this season’s opening production.  I was astonished to read that director Mark Rucker would be attempting to mount the show with a 15-member ensemble.  How could that possibly work?

In this case, the answer is, unfortunately, not well.  There are several terrific performances, and the solid construction of Kaufman and Hart’s hilarious script does shine through, but the play’s many scenes of overlapping dialog and seeming chaos need to be as finely tuned as a watch assembly.  Rucker seems to think he can get by with just throwing stuff on stage and seeing what sticks, and the big, noisy scenes are muddy instead of crisp.

The script shares a setting and many plot similarities with the later movie Singin’ in the Rain:  Three down-on-their-luck vaudevillians hatch a get-rich quick scheme after one of their number sees Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer and realizes that the silent movie’s days are over.  They decide to cash in their savings and go to Hollywood to open an elocution school, teaching all those silent film stars how to talk. In this trio, Jerry Hyland is the dreamer; his paramour May Daniels is the tough, practical one; and George Lewis is, well, the dumb one.  Once in California, ego-driven, schizophrenic Hollywood takes the trio to vertiginous heights as well as breathtaking lows.

Idiot-savant George (we know he’s an idiot, Hollywood mistakes him for a savant) is wonderfully portrayed by Patrick Lane, whose large, doughy features beam a guileless delight as he tries (and generally fails) to comprehend all that’s going on around him.  (The script’s genius is that George only ever latches on to a few key phrases and is occasionally blessed by being able to repeat them at exactly the right moment.)  John Wernke, as the schemer Jerry who goes Hollywood big time when given the chance, has real presence and a great look, and he wears his period clothes immaculately, but the one thing missing from his performance is any chemistry with his leading lady, Julia Coffey as May.  This is not entirely his fault.  Coffey understands the period and the style, and she’s clearly a talented actress, but she seems to have a good ten years on both George and Jerry, an issue not helped by the hideous wigs she has to wear.  (Her first one looks like you could grate nutmeg on it.  Who’d she piss off on the costume staff?)  Lane and Wernke both have the smooth, slightly unformed look of youth, while Coffey possesses the sinewy toughness of a mid- to late- career dancer who exercises ferociously. This May and Jerry just don’t match up.

There are other problems.  With a 15-member cast, Rucker resorts to a lot of stunt-casting in assigning multiple roles to each actor. Three of the cast members appear in drag: in two cases (Jason Frank as a starlet and Margo Hall as both a porter and a studio exec), it’s a fleeting distraction, but in the third case, Nick Gabriel as studio head Herman Glogauer’s secretary Miss Leighton, it’s a real mistake. Gabriel has a heavy beard, which no amount of make-up can conceal.  A Miss Leighton with 5:00 shadow doesn’t really work. Rucker then allows Gabriel free reign to give a drag-diva performance.  He sports a Louise Brooks-style bob, a long, flowing black deco-style dress (also a mistake: the dress is more 30s than 20s), and a sort of crouching, show-horse walk.  Gabriel is extremely funny, but he becomes the center of focus in all his scenes. Lawrence Vail (Alexander Crowther), the playwright-turned-scenarist stand-in for the actual playwrights, both of whom performed the role at various times, isn’t allowed to make any impression at all in his first appearance opposite Miss Leighton, and the plot (and show) is thrown off-balance.

In some non-traditional casting, Margo Hall, the actress who was so wonderful in the Aurora’s Trouble in Mind, plays Mrs. Walker, the somewhat addled mother of would-be starlet Susan Walker (whom George takes a shine to).  There would be a better chance of success if the production’s Susan, Ashley Wickett, were also African-American, but even so, Hall is surprisingly bad in the role.  She moves her body awkwardly and purposelessly and seems to be experimenting with her vocalizations as we watch.  And Wickett, in what should be a very funny role, is bland and leaves no impression whatsoever.  (The only laugh she earns is a result of the script, not her acting.)

As the two silent-film starlets with horrendous speaking voices, Marissa Duchowny and Jessica Kitchens make their first appearance clambering ungainly up hotel lobby stairs, and this is another error on Rucker’s part.  Silent film stars with lousy voices could nevertheless move with real elegance.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been stars.  Thus, when we first see them, we think they’re would-be starlets, not established actors, and furthermore, their speaking voices aren’t horrendous enough.  (You need to feel the impact of how terrible their speech is from their first words.) Duchowney adopts a pallid imitation of Lina Lamont, the ill-voiced villainess in Singin’ in the Rain, while Kitchens throws on some Carol Channing-style sibilants that don’t project well.  Kitchens does redeem herself later in a film clip that’s projected to cover a scene change.  It’s a purported screen test of her character Florabel Leigh repeatedly massacring a bit of Shakespeare.  It’s actually the funniest thing in the show, but it points out that her adopted impediment works in a movie close-up, but not in a theater as large as the Geary.

In the other major roles, Crother is actually quite good as the quintessentially sane Lawrence Vail, who nevertheless has to check into a sanitarium, and this despite the staging errors Rucker makes in allowing the character to be overshadowed by Miss Leighton.  René Augesen once again gives a marvelous performance as gossip columnist Helen Hobart.  She keeps pawing at Lane’s chest while expressing her respect for “Dr.” Lewis’s intellect, after he’s parroted bits of her own column back to her.  As Herman Glogauer, Will LeBow doesn’t have an explosive-enough temper, and Kevin Rolston could stand to be a little more outrageous as the German import, film director Rudolph Kammerling.

Daniel Ostling’s sets are quite handsome, especially the railroad car that takes the trio to Hollywood and takes May back again.  Alex Jaeger’s costumes are serviceable and occasionally very pretty, but he doesn’t do enough to distinguish between the various roles that the men play, the wigging is often ugly, and as mentioned above, Miss Leighton’s dress belongs to another period and another play.

As a final insult to his cast, Rucker has them involved in a tap number for their bows.  It’s a funny idea, but to pull it off, you need actual dancers.  (You also need to hear the dance.  The stage floor here muffles the taps.)  Unfortunately, most of the ensemble taps gamely but ineptly.

Despite some genuinely entertaining moments and performances, there’s not a lot at stake in Once in a Lifetime if you don’t believe May and Jerry care for each other and that Jerry’s infatuation with Hollywood leads to a real betrayal of May’s love.  Instead, you’re stuck with an underpopulated show that plods and stumbles when it should tap merrily.

Helen Hobart (René Augesen) confers with Miss Leighton (Nick Gabriel). (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Once in a Lifetime continues through October 16, 2011 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  For ticket information call 415-834-3200 or go to www.act-sf.org.

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Aurora Theatre Company’s Unsettling and Unsettled “Trouble in Mind”

Margo Hall as Wiletta Mayer in the Aurora Theatre's "Trouble in Mind"

Berkeley’s wonderful Aurora Theatre possesses an intimate thrust stage, employs local area actors, and often makes tremendous theater, despite a few stinkers every now and then. (Last year’s season-closer, Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate, counts as one of the stinkers.)

They’ve opened their new season with a largely forgotten work, Alice Childress’ 1955 Trouble in Mind. Childress was an African-American activist, author and playwright, perhaps best known today for her 1973 young-adult novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich. (She is reputed to be the first woman playwright to win an Obie award for Trouble in Mind in 1956, the first year of the honors, but she isn’t listed on the Village Voice’s official Obie website.) She was a member of the American Negro Theatre, working in many capacities for the organization, even acting on Broadway in their production of Anna Lucasta. (The Aurora’s program notes state that she garnered a Tony nomination for this, but, again, she’s not listed on the official Tony website.)

The murky details of her early theatre career underscore that she isn’t as remembered as she perhaps ought to be. Trouble in Mind, a scintillating, but ultimately, I think, unsuccessful play, indicates that a real injustice has been done in allowing her theatrical writing to fall to neglect.

The show opens with the first rehearsal of a mid-1950s Off-Broadway play about a lynching in a Southern town. Actress Wiletta Mayer (the redoubtable Margo Hall) is the first to arrive, exchanging pleasantries with the rather dim Irish doorman, Henry (Earll Kingston). She’s soon joined by John Nevins (Jon Joseph Gentry), a young black actor hoping for stardom from his role, the lynching victim whose mother is portrayed by Wiletta. She presumes to give him advice about working with white people: laugh at their jokes, don’t question their assumptions. “White folks can’t stand unhappy Negroes,” she says, with a bitter laugh. John largely ignores this, but agrees that the script at hand, the play within the play, isn’t great. However, he’s more interested in the craft and technique of acting, of making his role live. Millie Davis (Elizabeth Carter) and Sheldon Forrester (Rhonnie Washington) enter next. Sheldon is a journeyman actor cast as the father, and Millie knows that she’s playing another shuffling Jemima in the role of family friend, but dreams of real elegance. (“I’ll be damned if I wear another bandanna,” she snaps.) The white actors are Judy Sears (Melissa Quine), a naïve Yale product whose Bridgeport parents are terrified of her working in the big city, and Bill O’Wray, a genial man who’s nevertheless ill at ease around the black actors.

This is all presided over by the director, Al Manners (Tim Kniffin) and the young stage manager Eddie Fenton (Patrick Russell), both white. Manners has worked with Wiletta before and he’s affectionate towards her, but also paternalistic and condescending. (The irony of his name is a little heavy-handed.) Often coming across as an artistic blowhard, Manners is desperate for the play to be a success, and he pushes the actors to “justify” and “motivate” their characters’ actions. Millie and Sheldon do their best to convince Al they’re being authentic, John attacks and analyzes his role trying to convince himself he’s being authentic, but Wiletta is adrift. She gets stiffer and more awkward in the part as the rehearsals progress. As Al snipes at her more and more, she’s pushed to the breaking point.

Childress has fantastic powers of observation, coupled with a knowing sense of humor, and it’s these that make the play work to the extent that it does. For a good portion of the play she expertly handles the crosscurrents of race, sex, class, and theatrical heirarchy, and how each complicates the others. Wiletta jokes that Millie is always playing roles with flower names (Magnolia, Lily), while she gets all the roles with jewel names (Pearl, Opal). Then they find that this time out Millie will be Petunia, and Wiletta, Ruby. When John gets too friendly with Judy, Millie warns him, “You’re the thing her parents are terrified of.” Childress deftly exposes the myriad hypocrisies and deceptions race engenders in both the theatrical and real worlds. (For Childress, the theatrical world is an intensification of the real world.)

Trouble in Mind is lively, funny, and smart, but ultimately, it’s a thesis play, and therein lies its failure. Wiletta finally rebels and points out the absurdity of the show they’re rehearsing—that it’s not an anti-lynching work, since it hinges on the innocence of the lynching victim, the subtext being that if he were actually guilty, lynching would be fine. She denigrates the preposterousness of the actions assigned to her: She’s supposed to be ironing while pleading with the farm owner to send her son to jail so he’ll be safe.  A black mother in the South, she argues, would know that jailing would just ensure the mob knows right where to get at the object of their fury, and she certainly wouldn’t be ironing at such a time. But during these monologues, she becomes hyper-eloquent, speaking dense chunks of text. She’s no longer speaking in Wiletta’s voice, she’s now the playwright expounding on injustice. When Manners loses his temper in response, he becomes Childress’ straw man, exhibiting a shocking degree of racial hatred that’s only slightly less simplistic than the moment in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing when the Danny Aiello character spits out the N-word. What was a largely successful characterization falls apart.

Still, the Aurora’s production is a worthy evening of theater. I was dismissive of director Robin Stanton’s talents after seeing her work on Speech & Debate. (Her manner of eliciting energy from her young cast was to have them yell at each other.) Here, she’s working with an infinitely better script, and her crew of actors does impressive work, expertly mining the many layers of humor, anger, bitterness, resignation, self-deception, and resentment. There’s also a great sense of how important theater is to each of these people.

Stanton does misstep in one instance. When Sheldon relates the details of an actual lynching he witnessed as a boy, she dims the lights and has Washington push the horror of it—we’re almost listening to a ghost story told ‘round the campfire. A more matter-of-fact tone would allow the audience to experience the horror better, rather than manufacturing it for them. Stanton also places O’Wray leaning against the back wall, looking away from Sheldon, as if the story bored him. No matter what O’Wray’s discomfort with blacks might be, he’d pay attention to this.

Hall is largely astonishing. When Wiletta struggles in her role, Hall has her flash a look of suppressed rage at Manners as he unhelpfully barks instructions as her. When she proclaims to Henry, “I want to be an actress,” there’s both a fierceness and a desperation. Angrily burlesquing her part at one point, she waddles across the stage in a wide-legged, down-low shuffle. That the final scenes don’t especially work is the playwright’s fault, but Hall is amazingly expert with the subtleties of the shifts elsewhere. She makes palpable Wiletta’s frustration and anger as she demands to be taken seriously as an actress and as a human being.

Kniffin, too, is fine in his difficult role. Excepting the final scene, his Manners is sympathetic even when he’s ridiculous, a man who doesn’t know the extent of his own flaws.

Design-wise, Eric Sinkonnen’s set is just about perfect, a bare theatre with exposed rigging and inadequate radiators on the wall, the actors sitting around a rough table in mismatched chairs. The costumes, by Callie Floor, also successfully evince the period and support the individual characterizations.

Despite its unsuccessful denouement, Trouble in Mind is a fascinating work, a convincing look at the lot of a black actor in the mid-50s. Childress exhibits an incredible eye for detail, a great ear for dialog, and a ferocious intellect. You leave this production with a hunger to look at her other work and a deep admiration for the cast and crew.

Trouble in Mind plays from now until September 26 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, 94704.  For more information, call 510-843-4822 or visit auroratheatre.org.