Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2003
“In the time of our life, live – so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”
~ William Saroyan
The title William Saroyan chose for his Pulitzer Prize winning 1939 play The Time of Your Life is both grossly misleading and completely accurate. Having the time of your life is generally assumed to mean having the best time of your life, and Saroyan’s play does not depict the best time in the life of his characters or this nation. Neither is the experience of sitting through three hours of Saroyan’s ponderous prose always a wonderful experience.
But the title is accurate because time and life are exactly what Saroyan is most concerned with. “In the time of your life, live” he wrote. There are great similarities between the play and life itself. Much of the time of our life is devoted to the dreary routine of survival – eating, sleeping, washing, and working – but everyone experiences brilliant flashes of ecstasy, agony, hilarity, hopelessness, and anger along the way. While we are alive the time of our lives can seem to move painfully slowly, but in the end it seems all too short and it is those flashes of heightened emotion that we remember, not the daily drudgery.
Saroyan’s script, Daniel B. Region’s direction, and the performances of a large and diverse cast at the Ghent Playhouse manage to condense the life experience quite accurately into a three hour span. There were moments when I was just overcome with the brilliance of what was happening on the stage, and moments that were so agonizingly dull that I wanted to bolt from the theatre screaming. But when the curtain came down I was glad I had been there, and my memories of the good parts out-weighed those of the mundane.
Saroyan’s play is not perfect. A high school drop-out, Saroyan was self-educated and his style of writing was pure ego-driven invention. After reading through this script and several pieces Saroyan had written about it around the time of its first production, I was struck with how much he loved the sound of his own writing. He obviously loved to write and was a natural born writer, but his style is and was self-indulgent and ponderous.
Given this mixed blessing to work with, Region and his team have created a mostly excellent production. Beyond the quirks of the script, the biggest problem with this show is the casting. Modern theatres and modern actors are not used to large cast plays. Everyone in Saroyan’s world is living his or her own life intensely during the course of the play, and that means, literally, that there are no small parts, just small actors in this case. This is community theatre, and its purpose is not only to entertain but to give members of the community a chance to be involved in the excitement and discipline of live theatre. Therefore some of the performers are up to the challenge and some are not. No one is awful, but there are so many really good performances that the weak ones tend to stand out more.
I distinctly remember calling Nicholas Miscusi “bloodless” in my review of Dracula where he played Jonathan Harker. Here he is cast in the pivotal role of Joe, a man with no need to work who makes his life in various bars drinking champagne and spending freely. By intermission I was not enamored of Miscusi’s performance and was prepared to call him wooden in this review, a remark which would have mated wittily with my bloodless remark in October. But by the final curtain I liked him more. His portrayal of Joe is consistent and entertaining. And he looks good in a fedora.
Along with Miscusi, Fred Gibbons as Nick, proprietor of Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant, and Entertainment Palace at the foot of the Embarcadero in San Francisco where almost all the action of the play takes place, gets the most stage time. Gibbons is completely believable in this role, absolutely real. In Saroyan’s half-mythic world, Nick is the character who gets a real life – an Italian momma (Kathy Wohlfeld) who bustles in with a basket of bread and pepperoni for his lunch, and a beautiful little daughter (Katarina Varriale) who he loves and who loves him back. Both of these actresses are affecting in their brief appearances. Wohlfeld also handles a difficult turn as an unattractive woman nicely.
Grant Miller is winningly naïve as Joe’s sidekick, Tom. Unfortunately, he is paired with Kendra Lott’s monotone Kitty Duval. Lott is an attractive woman, and I see from her biography that she is a talented dancer, but she is not an actress. It is a pity Region saw fit to cast her in such an important role. She is simply not up to it.
The truly breathtaking talent on the stage comes from Franklin Micare as Wesley, a tramp who happens to be a piano virtuoso, and Paul Carter as Harry, the world’s most depressing comedian who is a natural born dancer. Micare is a fabulous pianist. Not a great actor, but his lines are few and far between. Mostly, he noodles on the upright, providing a vibrant live soundtrack to the play, while Carter dances. The piano is placed way upstage, and often, when Saroyan’s words bog down, you can just relax and watch these two men living the time of their lives through their art. It’s amazing.
Francesco “Paco” Serpico plays Arab, a perpetual barfly who speaks little English but plays a mean harmonica. Serpico is on stage a tremendous amount but has very few lines. He manages to create and maintain an interesting and credible character through long scenes during which he is not directly involved, which is no easy task.
Less adept at that skill are Frank Dianda as Willie, a pinball fanatic, and Erik Spielmann as Dudley R. Bostwick, a love besotted young man. Dianda tends to allow his face to overreact to what is going on around him, while Spielmann seems to sit and wait patiently for his cue. But when they are allowed to act rather than react, both do a nice job. Spielmann gets a big pay-off when the love of Dudley’s life, a nurse named Elsie, played by Alexys Wigley, shows up. Wigley is beautiful and affecting in her brief scene where she struggles to find the courage admit her love when faced with the inevitability of war and the possible loss of her man.
Keith Mueller overacts to great effect as Kit Carson. It was hammy as all git out, but he is just so cute with his glistening white whiskers and that twinkle in his eye that I forgave him everything. I loved his little hand movements and his infectious giggle. Wait until you see the chewing gum scene!
Oh, there are so many nice moments and so little space left! Otto Stockmeier is delightful as a clueless Greek paperboy with dreams of being a great lyric Irish tenor. Andrew Joffe, as the overwhelmed and burnt-out cop Krupp has a great monologue. I wanted to see more of the appealing Drew Davidson as the activist long shore man McCarthy. Cathy Lee Visscher was heartbreaking as Joe’s old flame Mary L.
Like the script and the performances, the set by Michael Antonson and Lesley Hallenbeck is uneven. If you just don’t look up, it’s fine. They have made great use of the very tight floor space at the Ghent Playhouse to accommodate the bar, several tables, the piano, the telephone, and the pinball machine, while allowing room to dance and fight and quaff champagne and beer. But the back drop, which somehow tries to morph the doorway to the kitchen into the towers of the Golden Gate bridge is ugly, amateurish and ineffective.
Like life itself, this play is well worth living. Don’t bring the kids, they will be deeply bored and confused. Come with an open mind and an open heart and enjoy the good stuff before it passes you by.
The Time of Your Life runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through November 30 at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs three hours with one intermission and is suitable for an adult audience. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003