'Time of Your Life' worked in 1939, but Arena's version is fairly lifeless


October 02, 1991|By Lou Cedrone

''The Time of Your Life'' is a terribly dated play, one that requires delicate handling and precise timing.

The Arena Stage version of the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning production lacks these things. "The Time of Your Life" does begin to work toward the end of the first act, but the second act is shapeless.

Lay all this at the feet of Romanian director Liviu Ciulei, who may not understand the William Saroyan classic and who could have not known the mood of America during the last year before World War II.

Believe it or not, it was a time of poetry, on stage and in novels. Playwrights, still deluded by the notion that communism might somehow save the world, gave subtle endorsement to it. It was also a time when the nation was coming out of the Depression but was on the verge of war, and playwrights wrote poetically about that, too.

It was a time when playwrights could make obvious statements about mankind, good and bad, and it was a time when prostitutes had hearts of gold, at least on stage.

Saroyan's play takes place in a waterfront saloon in San Francisco, an establishment that plays host to assorted characters, among them, a newsboy who sells all his papers to Joe, a man who spends most of his time drinking, philosophizing and sending his friend Tom on silly errands. There is also a streetwalker, and there is Arab, who talks about society having ''no foundation.'' Finally, there is a geezer, played by Richard Bauer.

Thank heaven for Bauer. He did this same role in the Olney Theatre production some seasons back, and once more, he saves the day. Bauer, who is given to flamboyant performance, adds a lot of his trademark to the role, but in this case the role can use it. His Kit Carson, who can't remember dates and mixes fact with fancy, is very close to camp, which may be the best way to do this role today.

The other actors, who might have followed Bauer's example, play their roles straight. That may have worked in 1939, but it doesn't quite do it today.

Nor does the direction work. It is much too loose. A play of this sort, with this many characters and playing areas, must be orchestrated.

In this Arena production, too often the beat is off.

Because of the uneven direction, and because most of the cast is taking all this so seriously, the nearly three-hour running time seems much longer than it is, and the spectator looks on, deciding where and when he would cut, had he the power to do so.

There are, however, some really good performances. Kevin James Kelly, as Tom, the young man who does Joe's bidding and loves the prostitute, is a perfect lackey, innocent and eager to please. Jeffery V. Thompson is Nick the bartender, Victor Strengaru is the Arab, and Terrence Currier is the drunk who weaves in and out of the saloon, a figure who was much funnier in 1939.

Casey Biggs is Joe, the jobless philanthropist who sits, drinks and smokes throughout the play, and when he isn't doing that, speaks poetically about life and what a drag it is.

Tana Hicken is the housewife who makes a brief visit to the saloon, and David Marks is the cop who speaks for the author when he laments the situation in which mankind has found itself. ''It's because everybody is crazy,'' he says.

Halo Wines plays the society lady who visits the bar. This was a very popular character back in the '30s, in film and on stage. Today, she seems foolish, which is why Wines is playing her and should.

''The Time of Your Life'' will remain at Arena Stage through Oct. 27. Most of the time, the production misses.

''The Time of Your Life'' ** William Saroyan's classic about a group of people who meet in a San Francisco saloon in 1939.

CAST: Casey Biggs, Richard Bauer, Terrence Currier, Tana Hicken, Kevin James Kelley, David Marks, Joey McKneely, Pamela Nyberg, Jeffery V. Thompson, Halo Wines

DIRECTOR: Liviu Ciulei

RUNNING TIME: Three hours

TICKETS: (202) 488-3300

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