This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
If life was as generous to William Saroyan as Saroyan was generous to life, the author would be turning 100 this year. Instead, the Fresno-born writer died 27 years ago this Sunday. In that time, none of his 20-plus plays have been revived on Broadway. Saroyan famously won the Pulitzer Prize at the age of 31 for only his second Broadway play, The Time of Your Life. In the decade following that success, he was the toast of Broadway; but today Saroyan is known mostly for his novels and short stories—as his plays are largely ignored and rarely staged. His reputation as a dramatist is so diminished, that the Saroyan centennial this year has seen just a trickle of the playwright's work: a college production and two small revivals here in Los Angeles.
Of the two professional productions, the second—and more substantial—is Pacific Resident Theatre's naturalistic revisiting of The Time of Your Life. Directed by Matt McKenzie, the staging faithfully re-creates a downtown saloon in depression-era San Francisco. We see real bottles of bubbly popped open and frothy suds flowing from a working beer tap. We hear the ring of an old pay phone and the clink and clank of an authentic antique pachinko machine. The vintage costumes—and period accents—are also painstakingly curated, if a little ragged, but on the whole the sense of time and place is successfully evoked.
What's harder to evoke is the dreamy, moist-eyed optimism that Saroyan's play is soaked in. The Time of Your Life features an eloquent longshoreman who declares, "it's awful, but its honest and ambitious, like everything else in this great country." A millionaire who hangs out in the seedy saloon who greets people with, "What's the dream?" and spouts, "I believe dreams sooner than statistics.”"Just about every character in the bar, from the society swells to the down-and-out drunks, has a slogan or trait that makes them unexpected, quirky and aw-shucks-likable.
Director McKenzie does an honorable job with the actors, keeping Saroyan's characters from devolving into a 1930's-tinted episode of Cheers, but it may be impossible today to elevate them into individuals who we actually care about on stage.
At Pacific Resident Theatre, the actors also make a valiant effort. Robb Derringer anchors the production as the mysterious money-man Joe. Christopher Shaw is the right mix of stoic and cheerful as Nick the barkeep, and Nick Rogers, who is the spitting image of a young Kirk Douglas with his slicked back hair, intense eyes and cleft chin is memorable as Harry the dancing, stand-up comedian.
Re-reading Saroyan's plays recently, I've found that none of them are grounded in dramatic incident or character; they're basically dinner parties, with all the guests merely different facets of Saroyan's own personality. This makes successful productions of his work dependent on finding actors with exactly the same temperament of loopy sincerity and wild exuberance for life. This is not the case at Pacific Resident Theatre, and its not going to be the case at most theaters in the foreseeable future.
McKenzie and his 19-strong cast succeed in giving Saroyan's dialog a spit-shine, but they can't make the play as a whole feel brand new. In 1939 Saroyan was a new voice, one that sounded like poetry in its celebration of the prosaic elements of American life; in 2008 he remains a unique voice, but one that sounds increasingly old-fashioned and mawkish, as the attitudes and acting styles in American theater have moved on.
William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life runs through June 1 at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Photos: Val Dillman