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Once in a Lifetime

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ONCE IN A LIFETIME, Court Theatre. Used to be that the one thing you could count on at Court Theatre was comedy. Even if a production was flawed--like Court's restrained version of What the Butler Saw--it was still funny, because beneath Nicholas Rudall's gruff, professorial exterior beat the heart of a clown. But now Charles Newell is artistic director, and though his revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1930 hit comedy Once in a Lifetime is many things--annoying, shallow, flashy, slow, long--funny it ain't.

To be fair, this play about a trio of vaudevillians trying to make it in crazy, dysfunctional Hollywood hasn't aged gracefully. The story is sluggish, the jokes are labored, and the sly references to such figures as Will Hays, Jesse Lasky, and Gabriele D'Annunzio are now obscure. Even Kaufman and Hart's wry observations about Hollywood--that studio heads are boobs, their underlings are vulgar yes-men, and the whole system is nasty, frantic, and stupid--have become cliches.

Yet the play is still amusing on the page--something you'd never guess from the desperate way Newell tarts it up with lots of cheap, not very funny theatrical tricks: outrageous costumes, wacky acting, silly sight gags, cute concepts, like having all the Hollywood underlings zip around on roller skates. Newell's most egregious sin, however, is underscoring the play with Charles Berigan's piano noodlings, as if this were a silent film--a distracting touch that interferes with the rhythm of the jokes and makes every important emotional moment feel like the lead-in to a song, which never comes.

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