Once in a Lifetime continues the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s tradition of reviving plays from Broadway’s heyday, the 1920s and ’30s, when it was still feasible to assemble gargantuan casts. Fifty-plus actors appear in Michael Greif’s production: when they double back for curtain calls, you see them grinning at the challenge of getting on and off again without collisions. Greif has mounted the 1930 Kaufman & Hart comedy without much visual distinction, and the ensemble doesn’t display quite the extravagant style the script demands. But it isn’t a clumsy or unintelligent production, and it’s certainly adequate to show off what may be the high point in the history of American stage comedy.
The setting is mostly Hollywood, in the chaotic days of the late ’20s. The explosive success of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, the first feature to include extended sound sequences, has thrown the studios into turmoil; virtually overnight silent films are obsolete, sound departments have been installed, and everyone’s making talkies — without much of a clue how to go about it. (Rich in satirical possibilities, this era later furnished Comden and Green with the material for Singin’ in the Rain.) Enter a trio of second-rate vaudevilleans who cook up an opportunistic scheme to open a voice school at Glogauer Studios and train ex-silent-screen performers. Studio head Herman Glogauer (read Sam Goldwyn) is the perfect sucker for their seat-of-the-pants enterprise: he’s the man who turned down the Vitaphone, Warner Brothers’ sound system, so now he says yes to everything. While May (Lauren Graham) struggles to keep a lesson ahead of her willing but hopeless pupils and Jerry (Tate Donovan) morphs into a self-protective toady, George (Tom Riis Farrell) — a sweet-natured, literal-minded doofus whose head is filled with the last thing anyone happened to tell him — finds himself put in charge of a movie and declared Hollywood’s new genius. In the land of the morons, the confident idiot is king.
Farrell and Donovan are just about perfect; the flaw at the top of the cast is Gilmore Girls star Lauren Graham. She’s too contemporary a presence for a piece that’s as dependent on the precision of period style as is Private Lives. And she doesn’t understand that May is a tart, brassy dame in the Joan Blondell/Eve Arden mode. We adore George because he’s so guileless and so hilariously himself, but May’s the heroine because she’s stable and quick on the draw; we see Hollywood through her cynical eyes. (That’s one of the ground rules of hard-boiled comedy, the genre Once in a Lifetime shares with The Front Page, Chicago, and M*A*S*H.) Graham plays her as flaky and daffy, so her wisecracks sound as if she were channeling someone else’s lines.
Among the supporting players, the funniest are Kristine Nielsen as Helen Hobart, the gossip columnist, and Clea Lewis as the vacuous, affected receptionist Miss Leighton, who sits at her desk in the lobby of Glogauer Studios as if she were a guest at a cocktail party. Costume designer Linda Cho is at her best with Lewis’s outfits, which permit the actress to glide about the room like a consumptive butterfly. A number of other players made an impression on me: Joe Grifasi as Glogauer, Peter Frechette as the exasperated playwright Lawrence Vail (the role Kaufman himself played on Broadway), Emily Bergl as the wooden elocution-school graduate from Columbus who aspires to stardom, Denny Dillon as her anxious mom, and Rocco Sisto as the German-import director who’s meant to be a benign version of Erich von Stroheim. (Sisto sounds and even looks like the Warner Brothers contract player Felix Bressart.) None of these actors develops a large enough repertoire of character shtick, though — in each case, what you get in the first five minutes is pretty much what you get for the rest of the show. But in view of the indignities that have been visited on this play (anyone remember Anne Bogart’s 1990 staging for the American Repertory Theatre?), a rendition that delivers the text with a high degree of competence shouldn’t be underappreciated. Especially when the text is as close to perfection as that of Once in a Lifetime.