A.C.T. has another winner

American Conservatory Theatre presents…..
Written by Moss Hart & George S. Kaufman
Directed by Mark Rucker
Featuring René Augesen, Julia Coffey, Patrick Lane and Alexander Crowther

If you like lots of glitz, amazing costumes and not much substance, this is the show for you. A.C.T. has created a lively, funny romp of this 1930 Hollywood satire by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The play, Hart’s first Broadway success, looks at Hollywood just as talking pictures were starting to transform the movie industry, ending the careers of countless stars who looked great but sounded awful, or whose acting style could not transfer to the new medium. The result is a blend of farce and satire that director Mark Rucker plays to the hilt. ONCE IN A LIFETIME is dated and threadbare, but beautifully paced, and always amusing.

The central characters are May Daniels (Julia Coffey), Jerry Hyland (John Wernke) and George Lewis (Patrick Lane) who have been performing together in a small-time vaudeville act. When they read in Variety that the “talkies” are transforming the movie industry, they abandon their act and head for Hollywood. The plan is for May to teach elocution to silent film actors who cannot adapt to the new medium.

Kaufman, who directed the original production, put Hart’s script through many rewrites and squeezed out most of the conventional romance and nearly all the sentimentality in favor of the wild grotesqueries of the Hollywood scene and the movie studio. This was a wise choice – as usual in the comedies of this period, the low characters are more interesting than the high ones. Nick Gabriel plays Herman Glogauer’s (Will LeBow) secretary and both men steal the show for this reviewer. The two of them internalized their characters instead of burlesquing them and each won the audiences heart. Indeed, they made every scene they were in a delicious bon-bon. The other actors too often tried so hard to be funny, they didn’t truly convince. However, this production is meant to be ridiculous exaggeration and the panorama of the characters interacting with one another in costumes to die for and sets that boggle the mind made up for any sense of artifice.

Each member of the cast has his moment: René Augesen as a Hollywood columnist, Margo Hall in a number of roles (one of them in a gray moustache that makes her look astoundingly like Charlie Rangel), and a delightful satire of romance between George and an ambitious ingénue (Ashley Wickett) who is determine to break into pictures.

This cast of 15 plays nearly 60 parts and this multiplicity means there is always something going on to engage the audience. The masterful direction saves the production from being a confusing muddle. Instead, it is wonderfully refreshing and funny from the opening scene in a tiny hotel room to the tap dance finale that ends the show.

Daniel Ostling‘s sets were nothing less than dazzling: a seedy hotel room, an elegant Hollywood restaurant, a Hollywood filming set, bare and cluttered at the same time and a fabulous railroad car in velvet and dark wood. Perhaps, even more dazzling were the pitch-perfect period costumes by Alex Jaeger.

ONCE IN A LIFETIME isn’t Death of a Salesman. Don’t expect naturalistic character development, or inspiring insight into the human condition. But in 1930, it ran for more than 400 performances, and in the capable hands of A.C.T. it still succeeds on its own terms. It is true comedy and made everyone laugh – no one can ask any more than that.

The American Conservatory Theatre’s production of ONCE IN A LIFETIME plays through October 16, Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 PM (with Saturday matinees at 2 PM), at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street at Powell in downtown San Francisco. Silent films play before the show on Fridays; other nights feature audience exchanges after the show. The box office is next to the theatre, at 405 Geary Street; tickets are also available by phone at 415-749-2228, or on the A.C.T. website www.act-sf.org. Some tickets are offered at the Half-Price Tickets booth at Union Square, or at www.tixbayarea.com.