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Once in a Lifetime


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Raven Theatre Company

Unlike the theater, which is sometimes elite and proud of it, movies are a populist entertainment. And the bridge between the player and the spectator must never be seen to have a tollbooth on it: Hollywood itself has perpetuated the myth that it is little more than a gold mine there for the taking. Of course the truth nowadays is that even the folks who carry chairs or fetch coffee probably have a degree from a university film school. But in the early days, it was an open highway, and anyone--however bereft of name, money, education, or skills--had a chance to strike it rich.

This is what Jerry, May, and George have in mind when they strike out for Hollywood in 1927. The Jazz Singer has just been released, and with it has come the end of silent films. This looks to be a golden opportunity for the road-weary vaudeville trio: they expect to make it big teaching film actors how to talk. The tale of how these all-American kids find success and romance in the razzle-dazzle madhouse of moving pictures forms the framework for George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's satirical farce, Once in a Lifetime.

Reviving this 1931 play in 1989 is a far more ambitious project than it may seem at first glance. Like most Kaufman and Hart comedies (with the exception of the domestic comedy You Can't Take It With You), Once in a Lifetime relies heavily on topical references. There are takeoffs on Hedda Hopper, Erich von Stroheim, Louis B. Mayer, and George S. Kaufman himself.

When faced with such contemporary references, a director can do one of three things. He can leave everything exactly as written, and the audience can scratch their heads in puzzlement over names they don't recognize and gags they don't get. He can update the gags, substituting the names of marginally equivalent personalities, and the audience can scratch their heads because comparing Sylvester Stallone, say, to Buddy Rogers only compounds the disorientation. Or he can play the whole thing divorced from specifics of time and place, so that the play creates its own universe--one about which audiences need know no more than the play gives them.

Raven Theatre Company's Michael Menendian has wisely opted for the third solution. He retains a few references to still-known luminaries: "Somebody told me John Barrymore used to be on the legitimate stage!" "You'd never know it from his acting, would you?" But he excises many of the more obscure jokes. He also eliminates a veritable army of extraneous players--starlets, film technicians, studio executives--whose original purpose seems to have been to create clutter and chaos on the huge '31 stages. In this production they are represented by two John Held caricatures (postured with exquisite grace by Kathy Keyes and Laurie Dawn Johnson) and ten or so factotums (played with great agility by Thomas Greene, Jack Tippett, and Kate McClanaghan), who manage to generate theatrical fizz in abundance. The result is a production that combines the anarchic otherworldliness of a Marx Brothers movie with the galloping pace of Looney Tunes. (On the evening I was there the pace was almost too quick--the audience hardly had time to laugh--but that might have been opening-night adrenaline.)

All the performances are superbly twice life-size, but particularly outstanding are Chuck Spencer as the idiot savant George Lewis, a man with eyes as wide and bright as headlights, and Stephanie Levin as the goblin- faced Susan Walker, who waddles her way to stardom. Jack Cohen has a handy talent for growing red-faced every time he raises his voice, which serves him well in the role of studio mogul Herman Glogauer; McClanaghan makes the most of every onstage moment as the duck-voiced, confetti-brained Miss Leighton. Ray Toler has constructed a black-and-silver art-deco set as dazzling as it is ingenious (it makes maximum use of Raven Theatre's tiny stage), and Kate Mitchell's costumes are breathtakingly splendiferous--enough to make Bob Mackie envious.

Once in a Lifetime either works in its entirety or not at all. Raven Theatre's production, I am happy to report, is a unified, almost seamless period piece that should be of interest to film buffs as well as hard-core theatergoers.

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