Shoved Aside

Playing to the middle: Hart and Kaufman's classic Once in a Lifetime aims for the center seats

If you follow local theater at all (and you do, don't you?), then you're already aware that there is a very funny play at the Guthrie Theater right now. You may also be aware of its title, Once in a Lifetime, although I have spoken to people who have seen the production and can't remember its name. I blame the writers for that, as it is not a particularly memorable title, and the writers are dead, so I don't expect that they will mind. Alive, I don't know that either Moss Hart or George S. Kaufman would have cared one way or the other if I gave them a few knocks for misnaming their play.

Well, Hart, maybe--he was supposedly a moody fellow. But I doubt Kaufman would have said boo: He once co-wrote a musical with George Gershwin called Let 'Em Eat Cake, which flopped. An infuriated backer confronted Kaufman, mistaking him for the composer, crying out, "How could you let this happen, Mr. Gershwin?" "My score was perfect," Kaufman snapped back. "The whole trouble is with Kaufman's book!"

But even those who don't know the play's name can tell you the story, which has taken on a strangely familiar quality through the years. Moss and Hart tell of a troika of vaudevillians, here played by a trio of actors that Minnesota audiences know mostly from their television work--specifically Richard Kind from Spin City, Kathryn Meisle from Law and Order, and Marcus Giamatti from Judging Amy. (Meisle and Giamatti, who play lovers onstage, are married in real life. I mention this fact only because the local press has made quite a fuss about it, seeming to be as excited as if Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne had pulled themselves out of their sepulchers to tread the boards one last time. In fact, the pair don't spend much stage time exclusively with each other, and when they do Meisle usually seems grouchy while Giamatti stares into the middle distance and spouts pipe dreams about Hollywood.)

It is in Giamatti's pipe dreams that the play begins to seem familiar. Having just seen the first talking motion picture, his character, Jerry, sells off his troupe's vaudeville act and books tickets for Hollywood. The three concoct a scheme to open an elocution school, as everyone knows that Hollywood in the silent era consisted of nothing but pretty faces with adenoidal Brooklynese accents or shushing sibilant consonants.

It is likely that Singing in the Rain borrowed heavily from Once in a Lifetime, which is common knowledge, but on viewing the play again I have come to believe that the Coen brothers also pilfered heavily from Kaufman and Hart, particularly for Barton Fink. The Coens have always intimated that they were inspired by playwright Clifford Odets's wretched Hollywood experiences, but Lifetime maps out a Hollywood filled with labyrinthine studios run by bullying, Yiddish-accented studio heads and populated by bewildered playwrights. Imagine asking Kafka to rewrite the Hollywood sections and you've got Barton Fink Indeed, Fink's high, anvil-shaped hairstyle instantly calls to mind Kaufman's own coiffure.

Once in a Lifetime opened June 2, so we are already well into the run, which leaves me feeling freer than usual to pitch little fits over niggling details, everything else about the play having been covered elsewhere. (This is the largest regional theater in the country with one of the most august reputations, so we should expect them to get the details right, shouldn't we?) I have no complaints about the costuming or set design, which is typically sumptuous. The play is set in the Twenties, which must be the Guthrie's favorite decade: It is forever the Jazz Age there, even when they are producing Shakespeare (witness Twelfth Night from this past season). Their obsession is such that I wouldn't be surprised to attend Amadeus, the first play of the new season, and see everyone decked out in raccoon-skin coats and straw boaters.

But the Twenties is a good age, and the Guthrie represents it well onstage. My complaint about Once in a Lifetime comes from the staging. On my first viewing, I was seated on the main floor at the foot of the stage, which afforded me a perfect view of play. However, a few days later I snuck past the publicists and bought tickets at the rush line, and got seats to the right of the stage. You would think director Douglas C. Wager would know how to stage a play on the Guthrie's unusual three-quarters thrust stage, having come from Washington, D.C.'s Area Stage, which is essentially theater in the round, and having already directed two Guthrie productions. But Lifetime is staged as though on a proscenium, with little regard for audiences on the sides of the stage. In fact, the production crew has built a little mock proscenium arch at the back of the set, perhaps for comfort.

From the side of the stage, mostly I was able to see the backs of actors' heads and their earlobes. Seeing it like this, some pieces of comic business that were perfectly delightful when viewed head-on suddenly made no sense. For example, actress Susan Walker has a funny bit where, at the drop of a hat, she suddenly begins an awful and earnest recitation of Rudyard Kipling's "Boots," during which she stomps her feet and casts an excessively serious expression across her face. Seen from the side, she seems instead to have launched into an aerobics routine. The only actor whose performance I was able to completely make out from this forgotten vantage point was Richard S. Iglewsky, who knows his way around the Guthrie stage well enough to make certain that everyone gets a solid gander at his mugging--and thank goodness, as his facial expressions are priceless.

Audiences who don't have wily publicists to show them to the best seats might mistakenly find themselves spending an entire performance staring at the spot where a wig is glued to the back of a neck with spirit gum. I know that there is an audience for that--I have been to the spirit-gum fetish pages on the Internet--but anyone else should try and get seats toward the middle.

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