- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

You’ve gotta love a play in which the main character, Joe (Bruce Alan Rauscher), a benevolent barfly, greets everyone he meets with “What’s the dream?” Not to mention such starry-eyed speeches as “In the time of your life, live, so that in wondrous times you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”

Playwright William Saroyan was known for his singular combination of schmaltz and salty patter, and his amiable masterpiece, “The Time of Your Life,” is no exception.

Written in 1939, when Americans were hobbling out of the Great Depression, “The Time of Your Life” celebrates survival, idealism, personal freedom and, yes, drinking. Not since the comedies of Noel Coward and Cole Porter, as well as the martini-downing antics of Nick and Nora Charles in “The Thin Man” movies, have you witnessed a show so gloriously, unapologetically boozy.

An earthier, 1930s version of “Cheers,” “The Time of Your Life” takes place in Nick’s Saloon, a waterfront dive in San Francisco. Amid the creaky bar stools and wooden tables, the various denizens of Nick’s gather to philosophize, schmooze, gamble, make time with the ladies and forget the roiling world outside the doors.

The nexus of Nick’s is Joe, a champagne-swilling slacker who seems to manufacture money in his wallet.

He is the most congenial of idlers, a dedicated humanist who wiles away the hours drinking and musing and whose philosophy in life is to get through the day without harming anybody. He spends his time sending his lackey, Tom (Timothy Andres Pabon), on crazy errands to buy toys, chewing gum, jelly beans — anything that strikes his fancy and curiosity.

Just about everyone in Nick’s has a touch of the poet.

The longshoreman McCarthy (William Aitken) sips his beer while commenting that he fights “for the rights of the inferior,” and when asked to critique a fledgling comedian’s performance, he notes: “It’s awful. But it’s honest and ambitious, just like everything else in this country.”

A grubby drifter dubbed Kit Carson (Kim-Scott Miller) regales the crowd with tall tales worthy of Damon Runyon — he begins one with the immortal line, “I don’t suppose you’ve ever fallen in love with a 39-pound midget?”

Even walk-on characters, such as the burned-out nurse Elsie (Elizabeth Kaufman), get to deliver impassioned speeches about the horrors of war and the looming menace of Hitler.

“The Time of Your Life” is a big, booming stew of ideas, pedagogy and love of man. For that reason alone, it is worth basking in the sentiment and bravura language of a William Saroyan play. You can see where the filmmaking Coen brothers get their comic timing and their cockamamie slang-crazed dialogue.

However, you might be better off reading Mr. Saroyan or trying to get your hands on one of the splendid recordings of the playwright and short-story writer reading from his works because the American Century Theater’s production, well-intentioned as it may be, is something of an ordeal.

The large cast never gels as an ensemble. The actors constantly trip over their lines or speak on top of one another. When they aren’t indulging in “conversationus interruptus,” there are leaden silences you could drive a railroad spike through. Some of the actors march onstage, stand stock-still in the middle of the set, deliver their lines with their arms at their sides and then trudge on back out the door.

This failure to capture the scatty bonhomie of a barroom compromises the warm, sprawling quality of a Saroyan play. Wit falls flat, as does whimsy — two more hallmarks of the award-winning playwright.

A movie version of “The Time of Your Life” featured James Cagney as Joe, a role Jackie Gleason powerfully revived for “Playhouse 90” on television. You cannot help but think what an actor of that stature would do with the role of Joe, or any of the other roles, for that matter.

A William Saroyan revival may be just what this country needs, but American Century’s woebegone production will do little to spur such a renaissance.


WHAT: “The Time of Your Life,” by William Saroyan

WHERE: American Century Theater, Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 9.

TICKETS: $18 to $26

PHONE: 703/553-8782


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