The Time of Your Life
Also see David's review of Dreamgirls
Although at one time, William Saroyan's 1939 comedy/drama The Time of Your Life was as inescapable a staple of theatre as such contemporaries Our Town, Arsenic and Old Lace, or Life With Father, the play has eluded my viewing until now. By happy chance director Tina Landau's rich production at the Seattle Repertory Theatre (based on and largely starring the cast from the well received 2002 production by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre) is as grand an introduction to this rather unwieldy but undeniably entertaining piece of Americana as one could wish.
Set in 1939, as the wind's of the war in Europe are about to blow the United States into WWII, The Time of Your Life takes place primarily inside Nick's Saloon on the San Francisco waterfront, but GW Mercier's expansive and jaw droppingly impressive scenic design is just as concerned with what's taking place just outside the play's primary action. We get to see inside a whorehouse, longshoremen on strike, street musicians, an overhead bridge and more, all of which enhances rather than distracts from the character interaction inside Nick's. There, as in Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel, people come, people go, and nothing ever happens, in terms of conventional plotting. But Saroyan filled his play with a fascinating assemblage of track stars in the human race, and Landau, through crisp pacing, period musical interludes and overlapping dialogue, keeps us riveted to them for two and one half hours.
Jeff Perry dominates the action as Joe, a likable yet vaguely disturbing barfly who has the money to keep buying champagne and putting misbegotten floozies up in fancy hotels, though by what means we never really learn. Patrick New is utterly engaging as Tom, Joe's good-natured and largely unquestioning errand boy, who falls hard for Kitty, a burlesque doll turned hooker, played with a little too much posturing by Mariann Mayberry. The liveliest figures on the stage are an outstanding Howard Witt as a tale-spinning Old West style vagabond who goes by the name of Kit Carson, and the utterly engaging Guy Adkins as Harry, a wannabe song and dance man. Adkins, in a role that helped send Gene Kelly on his way to Hollywood, struts his stuff sometimes in the forefront of the action (as in a charmingly zany rendition of "I Won't Dance" partnered with Darragh Kennan's lovably lovelorn Dudley) and sometimes in the background to help make a point, accompanied at the piano and vocals by Don Shell as a hard-luck black musician. Yasen Peyankov is a study in riveting understatement as barkeep Nick. Rod Knapp is a perfect fit as a gnarly old drunk, and Ramiz Monsef is hilarious as Willie, a pinball wizard who finally hits it big.
Familiar Seattle faces scoring in glorified cameos include Suzanne Bouchard as Mary L., a dignified lady who shares a touching romantic interlude with Perry's Joe; Cynthia Jones, touching as the kindly Lorene who accepts a blind date with Dudley only to be turned away; and Dan Kremer and Lori Larsen, humorously boorish as a wealthy couple slumming for the night at Nick's. Lawrence MacGowan is saddled with the only utterly unlikable role in the play as a corrupt and nasty vice cop named Blick, and can't do much other than make himself so contemptibly villainous as possible, so that his predictable demise engenders complete support from the audience.
The use of music in this production is a major key to its success. When a small paperboy (played with raffishly earnest abandon by Elias James Higham) "auditions" to sing in the bar with the old standard "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" the audience breaks into the kind of mid-show applause that you almost never here anymore, at certainly not in a straight play. This and wistful strains of "Beautiful Dreamer," "I'll Be Seeing You" and other vintage tunes employed as underscoring are mightily effective. The closing moments when the whole company breaks the fourth wall for an ironic rendition of "Let's Face the Music and Dance" may strike some as cornball, but with corn as sweet as what's onstage in The Time of Your Life, what's to complain about?The Time of Your Life runs through March 7 at Seattle Repertory Theatre's Bagley Wright Auditorium. For further information visit the Rep on-line at www.seattlerep.org.