Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Plays Out of Time

By Dalt Wonk

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  Viewing the comedies of Moliere, one has a sense that the original audience recognized their characters and situations. The veil between art and reality was thin, as it were, and part of the pleasure must have involved that little "frisson," or shiver of startled recognition.

The same may be said for many other great comedies. Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience, for instance, make a point of having fun with Oscar Wilde. But an annotated Gilbert and Sullivan could undoubtedly indicate dozens of other references -- now obscure -- that added to the audience's enjoyment at D'Oyly Carte.

It is the nature of a classic, however, to transcend its topicality and create a world that is fully realized and satisfying in its own right. The topical references are swept up in a greater flight of the imagination. And so the play lives on.

The opposite effect is the feeling that something is "dated." This does not mean we can no longer enjoy it, but its rewards are largely due to a kind of nostalgia -- though, of course, nostalgia can be agreeable in its own way. Think how much fun it can be to watch an old B-movie, for instance, as opposed to sitting through a mediocre new release.

In this sense, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's Once in a Lifetime, currently on view at Maxwell's Jazz Cabaret, seems dated to me. The play was written in 1930, when there was still a bevy of "journeyman" playwrights cranking out scripts for what was called the "legitimate" stage -- as opposed to vaudeville, the music hall-type variety theater that was just entering its final decline. And then there was the triumphant new kid on the block: the motion picture.

Once in a Lifetime tells the story of a trio of vaudeville performers -- Jerry Hyland (Antonio N. Basta), May Daniels (Joanna Miles) and George Lewis (Matthew Francisco Morgan) -- who are out of work and nearly broke.

Jerry returns from a screening of The Jazz Singer, the first major "talkie," and decides the future is Hollywood. They travel west with the idea of opening a school of "Elocution and Voice Culture." On the train, they run into Helen Hobart (Joan Blum), a syndicated Hollywood gossip columnist who falls for their tenuous tale about their successful school in Britain. With Hobart's help, they gain entree to Herman Glogauer (Adrian C. Benjamin Jr.) of Glogauer Studios, the archetypal tinsel Babylon, where uniformed pages carry placards showing Mr. Glogauer's whereabouts and droves of imported New York playwrights are entombed in forgotten offices.

The cast of Once in a Lifetime carries the sometimes-shaky plot through its rough spots.
There is a major love plot between May and Jerry. Jerry's ambition gradually leads to an estrangement, and May finally levels the most damning of reproaches: "You've gone Hollywood!" There also is a love plot between George and Susan Walker (Liz DuChez), an aspiring actress whose chief accomplishment is her recitation of "Boots" by Rudyard Kipling as if she were warming up for a prize fight.

The heroes have many ups and downs, but finally George, who is a sort of divine fool, wins Glogauer's esteem by babbling out a diatribe that consists of various overheard conversations. George is put in charge of a movie directed by Kammerling (Marc J. Fouchi), an expatriate German complete with plus-fours and riding strop. George forgets to turn on the lights and eats India nuts so loud that there is a constant popping on the soundtrack. Nonetheless, the movie is declared a masterpiece. Then, the irrepressible George orders 2,000 airplanes for the studio so he can get one free for himself, finally arranging for the studio's demolition. But Hollywood being what it is, all of this insane prodigality turns out for the best.

I don't know if it is possible at this late date to bring this zany satire to life in a convincing and sustained manner. The production at Maxwell's, under Nick Faust's direction, has some laudable performances and memorable moments. But the 17-character, three-act play puts a visible strain on the resources of the company, and its reach often exceeds its grasp.

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