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.

It’s Scapin’s world… or is It?

Bill Irwin as Scapin confers with Jud Williford as Sylvestre in ACT's "Scapin." (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Molière’s late farce, Les fourberies de Scapin (The Schemes of Scapin), takes about 45 minutes to read and seems to have taken Molière even less time to write.  Here’s the plot: Two young men, Octave and Leander, have fallen in love with women their fathers will likely disdain.  Leander’s servant, Scapin, enlists the help of Sylvestre, servant to Octave, to trick the miserly patriarchs out of sums of money and into accepting their sons’ romances.  Complications ensue.  Le Misanthrope it ain’t.

Nevertheless, the great clown and actor Bill Irwin adapted (with playwright Mark O’Donnell) this lesser work several years ago, as Scapin, directing and playing the title role in both Seattle and on Broadway.  He brings a new production to the American Conservatory Theatre, employing members of their core company and MFA program in his ensemble.

I’ve seen Irwin on stage several times, twice doing Beckett, and I’m convinced he’s the country’s finest Beckett interpreter.  His 2001 ACT production Texts for Nothing was brilliant, audacious, and incredibly moving.  (I still remember him struggling to find a comfortable place to sleep on the rocky, hostile setting, shifting and turning in an attempt to find rest in a landscape that offered none, rendering the abstractness of Beckett’s words extraordinarily concrete.) His 2009 Broadway performance as Vladimir opposite Nathan Lane’s Estragon, remains the best production of Waiting for Godot I’ve seen. Fool Moon, a clowning collaboration with David Shiner, was a sweet example of how audience participation should be done, with respect and without humiliation.  And in his conventional performances, as in the Jonathan Demme film Rachel Getting Married, he brings a well-observed humanity to his work. The man is a marvel.

However, Irwin’s clowning skills, wondrous as they are, can lead to self-indulgence.  His Broadway performance in last year’s Bye Bye Birdie was a disaster.  Irwin focused on the clowning and threw character out the window, resulting in a mannered, overwrought mess.  His vocal choices were so affected that he incomprehensibly garbled the first word of his one song.  (The word?  “Kids!”)

His Scapin falls short of the sublime, unfortunately.  There’s much that’s hilarious: the adaptation is free and has no problems making fun of the limitations of the original script; the cast ad libs with abandon; there are anachronistic references to gay marriage, terrorism, and other current events that are often quite funny; and the scenes are peppered with lots of sure-fire theater in-jokes.  (When Scapin is carried on stage, apparently near death, he asks, “Am I center?” He isn’t, and has to be hauled back stage left.)  There are comic Brechtian touches, such as a sign bearing the word “Exposition” extending out of a stage left window when one character gets a little too involved with his back story.

As co-author, director, and lead actor, the piece should be all Irwin’s, and there are times when he’s amazing.  His voice tosses off one-liners, shouting in alarm, mocking and cajoling. The plasticity of his limbs and spine can be astonishing, but he too often seems to be showing off, walking around in cringing postures, scrunching or pulling his face, his feet roaming off in different directions, the movements divorced from both the plot and his characterization.  He stops the show (not in a good way) for these displays of shtick, taking far too long for his entrances and exits. (The play, only an hour and 45 minutes as is, could easily stand to lose another 15-20 minutes.)

Irwin and O’Donnell add two plot elements not in the original, although one, a love interest for Scapin, is borrowed from another Molière work, La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas.  Omozé Idehenre portrays Nerine with great aplomb, intermittently lugging trunks over the stage that no one offers to help her with.  When Scapin become tongue-tied in her presence, he observes, “Molière did not write this part, did he?” and Nerine replies with a stern dignity, “It is among the parts he did not write.”

The other addition is far less successful. For some reason, Irwin and O’Donnell include a chase scene in the finale without any textual or dramatic reason. Scapin simply decides to bolt.  It goes on and on as everyone trots around the stage at the same tempo with no real urgency.  It’s neither fast enough nor funny enough, another lapse in judgment that ought to have been cut.

The show does feature one spectacular performance, one seamless integration of acting and clowning that never devolves into self-indulgence, that hits the right tone throughout.  Jud Williford as Sylvestre has a beefy body and long face with a prominent chin and forehead, and he ‘s the best second banana ever. Williford is relentlessly inventive without ever breaking character or overshadowing the text, the production, or his fellow actors.  Eager to help and easily flattered, his Sylvestre looks on with energetic interest, his mouth usually open as if all this idiocy was brand new to him. He possesses a sweet, winning bashfulness.  When Scapin tries to sweet talk him into helping with a scheme, he asks, “Do you have a theater arts background?” (a damn funny line all on its own), and Sylvestre replies with an embarrassed pleasure, “Well, I did a little acting back in servitude school.” In another scene, he channels bits of Taxi Driver (Williford molding his rubbery face into a passable DeNiro), Midnight Cowboy, and Dirty Dancing, and at the end of this tour de force, he looks to Scapin for affirmation that he’s done well.  In another sequence, Scapin pretends to be clairvoyant to Octave, relating Octave’s own story to him while Sylvestre mimes and charades the details behind Octave’s back.  It’s the evening’s high point: Irwin’s timing is perfect and Williford’s imagination knows no bounds.

Gregory Wallace as Octave tries out several things in his depiction, with little consistency and less success.  When describing his first meeting with his beloved Hyacinth (Ashley Wickett), he goes gay, describing the dress she wore and cooing over how adorable it was.  But since Octave isn’t gay, the moment makes no sense.  His voice is deep and tough-sounding at first (almost Brooklynesque in its accent) but this too goes by the wayside. At other moments, he just seems to be standing on stage, making no attempts at acting at all.  (Beaver Bauer’s costuming, otherwise fun and appropriate, fails here as well.  Octave wears huge thigh-high boots with a flare at the top, and an epauletted jacket with huge shoulders that comes down just above the hips, leaving his mid-section, garbed in tight, striped trousers, exposed and vulnerable.  If Wallace were to use this somehow, to make some choices consistent with his costume, it could be funny.  But as it is, he looks rather embarrassed.)

As Leander, Patrick Lane is better simply because he understands there isn’t much to the part.  He’s the young swain immersed in love and unconscious to the rest of the world unless it threatens to interfere.  Thankfully, René Augesen plays his paramour, Zerbinette with a worldly mirth that energizes the entire stage. Zerbinette takes her pleasure where she can, laughing at fools and delighted to find there’s such a large supply.  Despite the ridiculousness of her own name, she revels in getting Hyacinth’s wrong, hurling out whatever H-word comes to mind, including  “Hydrangea” and “Hyperbole.” Insisting that Leander marry her if he wants to continue the affair, she announces “Surprise! I’m a virgin!” and gets a huge laugh.  Steven Anthony Jones and Geoff Hoyle (a fellow Pickle Family Circus alum along with Irwin) are also both quite funny as the hapless heads of family.

But Williford is Scapin’s ultimate winner. He shines without overshadowing and triumphs without conquering.  He’s a supporting and supportive actor, the very best kind.  With his easy masculinity, he’s also, despite all the foolery, slightly sexy.  It’s a shame he wasn’t provided with his own love interest.

Irwin’s name is all over the marquee, and he’s an undeniable talent, but by evening‘s end, the show is Williford’s.

Zerbinette (Rene Augesen) listens as Geronte (Geoff Hoyle) pontificates. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Scapin plays from now until October 23 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street,
 San Francisco, CA, 94102.  For more information, call 415-749-2228 or visit http://www.act-sf.org.