The grand fantasy of spending every last dime on a train ticket to get to Hollywood in the hopes of making it big sets the stage for the American Conservatory Theater’s latest production, “Once in a Lifetime.” Written in the early 1930s by the famous duo Kaufman and Hart, “Once in a Lifetime” suffers a bit due to its dated perspective of Hollywood. But thanks to a few key performances and the excitement of witnessing such an ambitious undertaking in an intimate environment, the production succeeds in holding one’s attention, if not causing a few chuckles along the way.
Set in the late 1920s, “Once in a Lifetime” centers on a New York vaudeville trio packing up their act for a chance at getting in on the ground stage of the latest Hollywood craze, the talking picture. No, they don’t plan on becoming the Gloria Swansons or Charlie Chaplins of the talkies. Instead they have their eyes set on making the big bucks by opening up a school of elocution to give movie stars beautiful voices to match their on-screen personas.
Once in California, relationships turn sour, the pressure of the studio proves to be too much to handle, and characters are blinded by the glitz and glam offered by the Hollywood elite. However it proves difficult to relate to the characters and their relationship with this seemingly absurd town.
Whereas the appeal of Hollywood provides tension and humor through the dialogue, a visual representation of the glitz (let alone the glam) is sorely missing. The production utilizes no less than five distinct sets, but it all fails to capture the nostalgia of a film era that later became synonymous with its use of over-the-top soundstages and set designs.
All this is contrasted by the lead performance of Julia Coffey as the cynical voice of reason, May Daniels. Coffey’s ability to jump from disillusioned humorist to sincerely heartbroken lover adds an added depth to the idea of the town where dreams to go to die. In many ways, the cast in general makes up for the lack of creativity put into the set work. With over 70 roles played by only 15 actors, “Once in a Lifetime” succeeds in attaining a claustrophobic feeling where names and faces meld into an incoherent hustle-and-bustle atmosphere in a town where recognizing and networking with the right people can be difference between becoming a star or working as a waiter for years.
The show is further aided by the unique idea of using film clips as interludes in between scenes. By opening with Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” and later going into Bing Crosby’s famous song and dance number from 1933’s “Going Hollywood,” director Mark Rucker seamlessly introduces the period, situation and thematic elements of the larger story. Unfortunately, sometimes these clips overshadow the actual on-stage performances, making one wish for more of the elaborate musical stylings of Jolson and Crosby.
There’s also something to be said concerning the irony of a stage production detailing the life in Hollywood film industry. A natural tension develops from such a situation, leading one to question if an honest comedic portrayal of an industry that relies so heavily on piecing together seemingly unrelated bits of film to create a larger work over the course of a few months (and sometimes years) can be done in a live theater format. The film director and studio head inevitably become jokes at the hands of the mistreated playwright in a medium where the writer is king.
With so many works of theater and film detailing the pitfalls of stardom, it’s difficult not to compare “Once in a Lifetime” to similar pieces. There’s the obvious example of “Singin’ in the Rain” (both the film and stage versions). But that work idealizes the advent of sound to pictures and the effect it had on the studio system, reminding audiences of a past that will never be remade. On the flip side, films such as Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” illustrate the cynicism and disillusionment of Hollywood. “Once in a Lifetime” attempts to combine these two contrasting comedic images, but in doing so, it fails to leave a lasting thematic impression.