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.