Lovely 'Time of Your Life' oversimplifies

October 01, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- In William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life," everything is drawn in broad strokes -- the characters, the politics and especially the sentimentality.

The play is also broad in the sense of being a big, big undertaking. With a running time of three hours and a cast of nearly 30, this 1939 classic may once have been suited to Broadway, but nowadays it is only likely to resurface at a regional theater such as Arena Stage, which has a resident company in tow.

Despite the heavy-handed script, director Liviu Ciulei has forged a beautiful production. The attention to detail stretches from the inconsequential crass gesture of a two-dollar hooker to the period props, which include a pinball machine that plays the national anthem.

In addition, the portrayals of the colorful clientele of Nick's Pacific Street Saloon simply glow: Casey Biggs as a philanthropist and lush, doling out dollars to the needy out of barely repressed guilt; Pamela Nyberg as the streetwalker he rescues; Kevin James Kelly as the wet-behind-the-ears young man who loves her; Richard Bauer in the tour-de-force role of a tall-tale spinning cowboy; Joey McKneely as a would-be comedian whose trick dancing is much funnier than his ominous patter; and Jeffrey V. Thompson as Nick, the soft-hearted bar keep.

For that matter, virtually the entire cast deserves plaudits. One advantage of a resident company is the opportunity to cast large talents in relatively small roles; in this case, Arena veterans Terrence Currier, Halo Wines and Tana Hicken all make more out of less.

But what is this glorious effort in service of? A lot of showy over-simplification. On the eve of World War II, Saroyan's use of a vice-squad bully to symbolize fascism probably seemed prescient. And, by making a striking longshoreman an idealistic philosopher, he left no question where he stood on labor unions.

But even though a man is killed in the end -- needless to say, a bad guy -- this depiction of life in the "lousiest dive in Frisco" is at once as sweet as liqueur and as hard to swallow as medicine. It's good for you, it's right-minded -- or in the modern lingo, politically correct -- but it's ultimately sappy and fanciful.

If there's one wrong note in Arena's production, it's the set, designed by the director and far too attractive for a honky-tonk in the worst part of town. In one sense, though, it works. Mounted on a turntable and revolving like a drunken nightmare, the set reminds us that the resolution of these characters' problems is also only a dream. Things may work out in Nick's place, but outside the swinging doors, there isn't a sentimental playwright to manipulate the strings.

"The Time of Your Life" continues at Arena Stage in Washington through Oct. 27; call (202) 488-3300.

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