American Conservatory Theater associate artistic director Mark Rucker first staged the 1930 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart Hollywood satire “Once in a Lifetime” as a 2009 project for the conservatory’s masters of fine arts students.
It’s now been sumptuously remounted as this season’s opener, with both students and professionals playing multiple roles. But what makes for an enjoyable workout for emerging actors is not necessarily an inspiring mainstage show.
A vaudeville trio, at the rise of the “talkies” era, heads for Hollywood to reinvent itself as an “elocution” school for previously silent film actors. As such, the circumstances somewhat parallel our own; after all, the digital era is all about reinventing and repurposing. And the mindlessness that the playwrights spoof certainly resembles aspects of today’s Tinseltown.
But “Once in a Lifetime” may have outlived its lifetime: It’s lengthy, corny and occasionally downright tedious.
It follows the fortunes of the trio — preternaturally stupid George (whose accidental success resembles Peter Sellers’ Chance Gardener in “Being There”), ambitious Jerry who “goes Hollywood” and Jerry’s girlfriend, cynical, wise-cracking May — as they encounter assorted types: a power-wielding movie columnist, a studio head, movie stars with speech impediments, a frustrated script writer, a talentless wannabe ingénue and her fluttery mother, an obfuscating secretary, a German director with a monocle and the like.
Rucker said in an interview that he asked a cast member to look at old movies of the era and try to “imitate” a certain character as a way into her role. So it’s not surprising that the cast appears to be copying the broad and presentational acting style of the old silver-screen stars, right down to vocal inflections and studied posturing, all of which worked well at a time when audiences were less sophisticated.
Nowadays, that style is pleasingly nostalgic for some; for others, it’s a directorial exercise that serves no real purpose.
Some portrayals stand out: Will LeBow, completely natural, and thus very funny, as the studio head, and Nick Gabriel, whose turn as a (female) receptionist proves that comic characterization can be hilarious if it’s fresh and inventive, not imitative.
Design-wise, the show is a treat, from Daniel Ostling’s stunning sets, beautifully lit by James F. Ingalls, to Alex Jaeger’s colorful costumes.
During set changes, drop-down screens show scenes from old films and, even more fun, black-and-white videos made especially for this production featuring a video design by Alexander V. Nichols.
Once in a Lifetime
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, closes Oct. 16
Tickets: $10 to $85
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org