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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Time of Your Life:
Did Saroyan Write a Great Play?

Also see Bob's review of ODD

The Time of Your Life
Gregory Derelian and Sean Mahan
In the fall of 1939, William Saroyan's classic American play, The Time of Your Life, opened on Broadway, going on to win the 1940 Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics Circle Award. However, there were naysayers who found Saroyan's writing to suffer from sentimentality and stilted poetic dialogue. In his lyric for the song "Zip" in the 1940 musical Pal Joey, Larry Hart tossed a barb at Saroyan by having the intellectual ecdysiast (modeled after Gypsy Rose Lee) quoted as asking, "Will Saroyan ever write a great play?". Well, on the basis of viewing the engaging and perceptive production of the play that the Shakespeare Theatre is now offering, an appropriate response to the question Hart posed would be, "Saroyan has written a great play, and it is The Time of Your Life.

The play is set over the course of one day in October, 1939. The setting is the grandly named Nick's Pacific Street Bar, Restaurant and Entertainment Palace, a low-end, unfashionable San Francisco venue frequented by neighborhood streetwalkers. The dapper, well-dressed, well-heeled Joe, who could afford much better, spends most of his waking hours here, drinking the champagne which Nick stocks only because of him. For three years now, since being rescued by Joe when he was cold and hungry and looking up from the bottom of a bottle, a younger man, the good natured, not particularly swift Tom, has been with him. Tom does Joe's bidding, running errands for him while Joe idles away his life in the bar

.

We will meet eighteen other people today at Nick's, a few slumming, but mostly poor people at the lower end of the social and economical ladder, struggling to cope with continuing deprivations caused by the Depression, brutality at the hands of thuggish law enforcement, fear aroused by the prospect of war, and their knowledge that death awaits all.

Wait! Am I talking about the optimistic, humorous and open-hearted writings of the idealist William Saroyan? Yes, I am. The genius of Saroyan and The Time of Your Life is that the painful realities are present, together with the optimism, humor and open heartedness. Saroyan insists that we embrace these qualities and make them central to our lives, in the face of harsh realities. It is Saroyan's clear-eyed view of the trials that face humanity that give his sentiment and generosity of spirit ballast.

In my thoughts as I watched this play was another bar play, possibly the greatest one of all, Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. This O'Neill play was published in 1940. As unlikely as it may be, there is credible formal logic to viewing Iceman as O'Neill's haunted response to Saroyan's sunnier visioned 1939 The Time of Our Lives. Although the differences between the plays are profound, there is a great deal of similarity in their structure. Both Joe and Iceman's Hickey are outsiders to the milieu in which we find them, and have secrets which we do not know. There is a dark side to Joe, and the outcome of events is in doubt through much of Saroyan's play. It is Joe's conduct that will determine the quality of his life and the lives of others. Hickey is a very dark cousin to Saroyan's Joe.

Director Paul Mullins captures all the nuances of Saroyan's writing, and maintains a lively pace. The play is performed in two acts, as has become de rigueur in revivals of traditional three-act plays. I assume there has been some tightening because of the length of the performance. Still, the play flows smoothly and nothing here feels skimpy or rushed. Mullins has elicited an excellent ensemble performance from his cast.

The characters have dreams, and not all of their dreams will be realized. But these are not pipe dreams. These dreams are worthy of the struggle to achieve, and without them, their lives would be impoverished.

Andrew Weems deftly walks a delicate line. We enjoy his Joe as he shows emotional and financial largesse, but there is a sense of dislocation in his performance. Is he hiding a dark secret, or does he have a need which cannot be fulfilled by devoting himself to the pleasures of champagne? Ned Noyes disarms us as the tentative Tom, who falls in love with Kitty Duval, literally "a two dollar whore," but he is unable to reach out to her on his own. Sofia Jean Gomez delivers a beautifully modulated performance as Kitty. As she reveals herself and her past, we can see her grappling to find her long lost calm center. Saroyan's Kitty as conveyed by Gomez is too dimensional to be a stereotypical whore with a heart of gold.

Allison Daugherty as the upper class, unhappily situated lawyer's wife, who finds herself sharing a flirtatious moment with Joe, acts with her entire frame, conveying the unhappiness of her existence with small, subtle body movement. Edmond Genest does wonders making Saroyan's most whimsical character, Kit Carson, his most believable one. Old Kit is dressed and breaded like our image of an old West fur trapper. However, as Genest relates Carson's fabulist stories of feats and adventures with great flair and humor, his Carson becomes the embodiment of every glib storytelling old codger who ever put a smile on our faces as he gently hustled us for free drinks in a bar. And, before the play is concluded, you may well come to believe some of those fabulist stories.

Others include the Greek lyric tenor newsboy who croons "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" (Michael Mungiello); the elderly, crushed "Arab" reaching for an elusive truth as he mutters incoherently that the problem is that "there is no foundation, all the way down the line" (Paul Meshejian); Blick, the brutal, inhumane, prostitute harassing law enforcement agent we love to hate (Christopher Burns); Nick, the gruff but good hearted proprietor (Gregory Derelian); the confused young suitor (Salvatore Cacciato) and the object of his affection, Elsie, a nurse who has difficulty confronting mortality everyday (Jennifer Gawlik); McCarthy, the pro-union idealist longshoreman who seems to have wandered in from a Clifford Odets play (John Nahigian); the idealistic police officer who cannot abide the cruelty expected from him by his superiors (Sean Mahan); and two young men, Harry, whose ambition to be a dancer-comedian outstrips his talent (Blake Hackler) and Wesley, a talented piano player whose sights need upward adjustment (Anthony Stokes). All of these characters are well realized by the talented, well cast and directed ensemble players.

James Wolk's large, well designed set includes a pleasant design surprise. Lora LaVon's costumes nicely define the social status of each character.

As far as I can determine, The Time of Our Lives has not had a major New York revival in over thirty years. With a cast of eighteen (playing twenty-one roles), it is quite a daunting undertaking, considering today's economic climate for straight plays. We should be grateful to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey for restoring it to us in such grand fashion.

Sixty-eight years after its original production, The Time of Your Life feels fresh and contemporary. As it is able to speak to our lives today as directly as if it had been just put to paper, I would venture that The Time of Your Life is truly a great American play. Very funny and entertaining, too.

The Time of Your Life continues performances (Tuesday 7:30 p.m./ Wednesday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m./ Sunday 7 p.m.) through September 30, 2007 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online www.shakespeareNJ.org.

The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan; directed by Paul Mullins

Cast
Joe…………………………Andrew Weems
Nick…………………. Gregory Derelian
Arab………………………Paul Meshejian
Newsboy……………Michael Mungiello
Tom……………………………...Ned Noyes
Kitty Duval…………….Sofia Jean Gomez
Dudley……………Salvatore Cacciato
Harry……………………...Blake Hackler
Wesley…………………..Anthony Stokes
Lorene………………..Megan Irene Davis
Blick…………………Christopher Burns
Mary L……………...Allison Daugherty
Mccarthy……………….. ...John Nahigian
Krupp…………………………Sean Mahan
Kit Carson………………..Edmond Genest
Sailor……………………...John Niahigian
Elsie……………………..Jennifer Gawlik
Killer………………....Megan Irene Davis
Killer's Sidekick…....Allison Daugherty
Society Lady………………..Carole Caton
Society Gentleman…………….Barry Smith


Photo: Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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