This production is precisely what the American Century Theater was formed to do - give audiences a chance to see what all the fuss was about over some of the great plays that marked the American stage in the twentieth century, a period of tremendous achievement and amazing variety in the theater. Here is a play that won the Pulitzer Prize, ran a season on Broadway, was revived twice, made into a movie and later into a teleplay when plays were being performed live on TV. Still, today, few have the opportunity to see it performed and it is even difficult to find a copy to purchase. Part of the reason is the size of the cast required. For this production, director Terry Kester has five cast members double up on roles so he can get away with paying only nineteen actors, but that is still a sizeable group in today's cost-conscious world. The production has a feeling of affectionate restoration, not of skimped resources. It offers the considerable pleasure of spending the evening in the company of some very interesting people, people only the life-loving short story writer turned dramatist could envision.
Storyline: A wide variety of people wander into a bar in San Francisco's embarcadero waterfront and spend a little time over a drink, play a little pinball, dance or play a piano or harmonica, tell a few stories and enjoy life. Practically plotless through much of the early going, a few of the stories coalesce toward the end as a police detective throws his weight around too much and the patrons unite in reaction.
Beth Baldwin's detailed reproduction of a prototypical cheap waterfront dive and Rip Claassen's 1930s costumes set a standard for realism which demands a realism in the performances which many in the cast are able to deliver. The result is a feeling of eavesdropping on strangers which is always an interesting pastime, especially when the strangers are this interesting. Of course, it is the charm of Saroyan's writing which makes the eavesdropping so much fun. He writes dialogue for each character that reveals intriguing details and gives each actor the raw material from which to create fascinating, believable people.
Bruce Alan Rauscher and Joe Cronin are at the center of the play. Cronin is the bartender who keeps tabs on events in his establishment. Rauscher is a customer who is spending most of his time sipping champagne, sending Timothy Andrés Pabon out to buy things on a whim, trying to lighten life's load for a prostitute played by Angela Lahl, and listening to the stories of all and sundry strange characters. He listens so intently and so well that his view of events is the audience's view. The show is somehow less satisfying during those few minutes he's off stage.
Dan Murphy has the hardest time of all because his character is the only one in the entire cast not written by Saroyan with some sympathy. He clearly despised the mid-level detective that he makes the heavy of the piece. His enmity did not extend to the beat cop, however, for he created a stereotypically warmhearted, hard working one and then had him rhapsodize over the possibility of finding another line of work. Saroyan's heart was with the underdog and he finds the positive in practically everyone - that's the charm of the piece.
Written by William Saroyan. Directed by Terry
D. Kester. Design: Beth Baldwin (set) Rip Claassen (costumes) Suzanne
Maloney (properties) Thomas B. Kennedy (lights) Bill Wisniewski (sound)
Jeff Bell (photography) Rhonda Hill (stage manager). Cast: William Aitken,
Caroline Jane Angell, Matthew Aument, Jake Call, Evan Casey, Joe Cronin,
Valerie Fenton, James Foster, Jr., Deanna Gowland, Bill Hensel, Elizabeth
Kauffman, Angela Lahl, Keith Lubeley, Kim-Scott Miller, Dan Murphy, Timothy
Andrés Pabon, Paula Phipps, Bruce Alan Rauscher, Brent Stansell.
The City Paper
From the moment a hangdog fellow taps a bit of salt on the head of his beer and raps his knuckles on the bar in thanks, it's clear that director Terry Kester and his large American Century Theater cast have tapped into the fundamental sadness of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life. Times are tough: A young guy tells elaborate jokes and dances his tail off by the piano, hoping to win a gig as an entertainer; another man passes out from hunger; pinball games and love stories go bad. The play has less of a plot, really, than an ongoing general funk. Nothing much happens until Joe--the shattered idealist at the hub of this ambling story--tries to broker a romance between his pie-eyed errand boy, and the two-dollar whore the boy adores. Joe, given a well-heeled weariness by Bruce Alan Rauscher, is a moneyed drunk who tries like hell to do nothing but good for humanity, starting by planting himself in Nick's saloon and drinking champagne all day long, spreading cash and good will where he can. There is unvarnished sentiment aplenty; Joe faithfully bets on a horse named (what else?) Precious Time, and Nick the barkeep (played with almost too much paternal twinkle by Joe Cronin) nurtures a soft spot for the down-and-outers who come his way. But when a heavyhanded cop keeps coming around and hassling people, genial Nick swears he could do murder. The deep-hard-times atmosphere--the trickiest thing about the play (and the thing that keeps it from getting unbearably sticky)--is consistent, from the Depression-era pinball machine and cash register on Beth Baldwin's agreeably run-down barroom set to the live piano and harmonica tunes that often pulse lightly under the conversations. When a few characters begin to improvise a little blues because, as one laments in a refrain heard since the beginning of the play, there is "no foundation, all the way down the line"--well, amen, brother, and slide me a beer. (NP)
Gunston Arts Center Theater II 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Thursdays-Saturdays & Wednesdays at 8 p.m.; matinee Sun., 9/19, at 2:30 p.m. $18-$26 to Oct. 9 (703) 998-4555
Special to The Washington Post
So this cop, this pinball wizard and this guy named Kit Carson walk into a bar -- as do a newsboy, a nurse, a longshoreman, a would-be vaudevillian, an Arab harmonica player and . . . Well, suffice it to say that William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life," set in a 1939 San Francisco saloon, is not one of those intimate two- or three-character plays that help theater companies keep budgets low and curtain calls short. This rambling, bittersweet classic is meant to conjure up a restless panorama of American life, and that's certainly accomplished in the American Century Theater's energetic and mostly entertaining production, which opens the company's 10th season.
With a couple of exceptions the acting of the 19-member cast leaves something to be desired, but Terry D. Kester's judicious direction creates fluctuating moods and rhythms that make the play a wry, profound and sometimes funny reflection of life in this country, and maybe life in general.It doesn't hurt that, in order to get to your seat, you have to stroll through Beth Baldwin's atmospheric set, a run-down barroom whose asymmetrical, yellowing walls are plastered with placards for Jack Daniel's and the like. Right from the start, in other words, you feel complicit in the dynamics of this waterfront dive, whose soulful proprietor, Nick, is already onstage tending bar. The establishment really comes into its own, however, when the play's opening lines introduce Joe, the benevolent and slightly mysterious boozer who aspires to live "a life that can't hurt any other life." Joe provides what center there is to Saroyan's pretty diffuse script, and fortunately, he's incarnated here by Bruce Alan Rauscher, whose assured stage presence -- and ability to be intense, flirtatious, impatient and capricious by turns -- anchors the production.
Into Joe's orbit Saroyan swings an array of eccentric figures, portrayed with varying degrees of persuasiveness by the cast. Dan Murphy is delightfully villainous as the policeman, Blick, stalking thuggishly onstage and glaring at the customers while chewing casually on a toothpick. As Joe's simple-minded sidekick, Tom, Timothy Andres Pabon hits an adequate note of gangly sweetness, but Joe Cronin overdoes Nick's animated Mediterranean mannerisms, and Angela Lahl doesn't fully round out the character of the melancholy prostitute Kitty. In the role of the showbiz wannabe Harry, Evan Casey looks awkward, but then it can't be easy inheriting a singing and dancing part that was played by Gene Kelly in the play's 1939 premiere.
Set on the eve of World War II, "The Time of Your Life" resonates with a certain amount of social consciousness: Nick's customers pursue their varied obsessions against the backdrop of a strike on the waterfront (in Kester's staging, the strikers parade just behind the set, visible through the windows), and Joe's perusal of European maps hints at the impending global conflagration. In this production, though, it's the script's whimsy that comes off best. The pinball fixation of Willie (Brent Stansell) is marred by the noisiness of the game unit, whose clatter sometimes makes the dialogue hard to hear. But Kim-Scott Miller hams it up enjoyably as Kit Carson, an irrepressible narrator of incoherent tall tales, and the priceless gum-chewing competition between Joe and Tom underscores Joe's resolve to experience life fully. ("In the time of your life, live," Saroyan wrote in a preface to the play, further emphasizing the message.)
Most importantly, Kester gets his actors to shift between bits of stage business (pinball, etc.) and quiet listening, creating a convincing impression of a fidgety, erratic human landscape.
With its shortfall in virtuoso performances, the American Century version may not be the ideal staging of "The Time of Your Life." But the production does offer an encounter with a classic that's not produced too often -- a classic that yields a poignant portrait of what Saroyan called a "deep American naivete and faith in the behavior of each person."
The Time of Your Life, by William Saroyan. Directed by Terry D. Kester; scenic design, Beth Baldwin; costumes, Rip Claassen; light design, Thomas B. Kennedy; sound design, Bill Wisniewski. At the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-553-8782 or visit www.americancentury.org.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company