Once in a Lifetime at ACT

Why would a movie blog cover a piece of live theater? When the play is about the movies.

Last night, my wife and I attended a preview performance of the American Conservatory Theater’s new production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman ’s 1930 Broadway hit, Once in a Lifetime. A broad farce about Hollywood, the play is built around the talkie revolution—still recent news when the play first opened.

I have some history with this play. I did tech on a production of it when I was in high school.

The story centers on three down-on-their-luck vaudevillians who, in the wake of The Jazz Singer, dash to Hollywood to make a fortune as elocution teachers. They haven’t a clue what they’re doing, but they figure that no else does, either. They’re right about that. Kaufman and Hart paint Hollywood as an industry run by the clueless. Stupidity, they tell us, is the single biggest career asset.

With a farce of this nature, there are only two relevant questions: Does it make you laugh, and do you care enough about the main characters to happily sit through the few laugh-free scenes? The answers: Definitely, and just barely. The classic script, Mark Rucker’s imaginative direction, and the talented ensemble cast (all of whom get their chances to steal scenes) all work together in this well-oiled laugh machine.

Two favorite bits: All of the waiters, chauffeurs, and other service workers feel the need to “act” when in the presence of a studio head. And a transplanted playwright finds himself trapped in Ionesco-like absurdities while trying to find out what the studio wants in exchange for his generous salary.

Appropriate for a play about movies, movies themselves are worked into the production. The play opens with a scene from The Jazz Singer. Other clips entertain the audience during the set changes—some from old movies, and two shot specifically for this production (these two are particularly hilarious).

The performance was rough around the edges, with a few slow spots and missed cues. But that’s why they charge less for a preview.

I was probably the only person in the audience bothered by historical inaccuracies. Some of these are in the script. Neither Hart nor Kaufman had yet worked in Hollywood, and were proud of that. But the worst errors were in the play’s production design, especially in the one scene set on a sound stage.  There was no microphone, and the camera was sort that had to be abandoned when sound came in: an unblimped, hand-cranked camera. The earliest sound films were shot with cameras equipped with electric motors, with both the camera and its operator trapped in a sound-proof box.

I know. That’s nitpicking. It didn’t impede much on the evening’s entertainment, and probably not at all for anyone except me.

The play runs through October 16. Unlike more popular Kaufman/Hart plays (You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner), this one is seldom revived. Chances to see this particular comedy really do come around once in a lifetime.

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