Hollywood at the dawn of talking pictures is cleverly satirized in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1930 comedy ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ now getting an energetic revival at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.
Jerry, George and May are washed-up vaudevillians, stuck in New York without work for a month and down to their last $128, when Jerry returns to their seedy hotel after seeing -- and hearing -- Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer.” Live-wire Jerry sees an opportunity, declaring that the trio must board a train for California immediately.
“We’ve got to get out there, before the Broadway bunch climbs on the band wagon,” he gushes. “There’s going to be a gold rush.”
May comes up with a plan: They will train actors to speak in front of a camera.
“A school?” straight man (and dim bulb) George asks. “We don’t know anything about that.”
“I went to one once,” May reassures him.
Heading west they meet the powerful movie critic Helen Hobart, and before you know it they’re teaching elocution in L.A. and working for powerhouse producer Herman Glogauer.
At the studio we meet a gaggle of Hollywood characters -- Glogauer’s Dracula-like receptionist, dressed in black from head to toe; the arrogant director Rudolph Kammerling, in beret and riding boots; the pretty blond actress with a squeaky voice who has no future in the talkies.
Delivers the Laughs
Directed by Mark Rucker, the show is a trifle that still manages to deliver the laughs. Julia Coffey stands out as the plucky May, with John Wernke as Jerry and Patrick Lane as George ably completing the trio.
Rene Augesen as Helen Hobart and Will LeBow as Glogauer, both over-the-top, have even more fun with their roles. (It helps that Glogauer gets many of the best lines. “You couldn’t stop making money,” he says of the old silent movies. “Even if you turned out a good picture, it made money.”)
The production is grounded by Daniel Ostling’s lavish set and Alex Jaeger’s costumes. (The Pullman car for the train ride to California is a marvel of polished wood and brass fixtures.) Film clips that run during scene changes -- including Jolson in “The Jazz Singer,” Bing Crosby crooning in “Going Hollywood” and Frances Williams singing “Hollywood Party” -- add greatly to the period feel of the show.
By the third act of this 2 1/2-hour lark, when lunkhead George has implausibly risen to become a successful director, the show briefly turns serious as a frustrated screenwriter decides to head back east in despair. Quickly enough, though, his plan is upended and the show returns to its screwball roots.
As Glogauer observes, “That’s the way we do things out here. No time wasted on thinking.”
“Once in a Lifetime” runs through Oct. 16 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Information: +1-415-749-2228; http://www.act-sf.org. Rating: ***
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(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)