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STAGE REVIEW : An Underdone ‘Once in Lifetime’

Times Theater Writer

You don’t know anything about anything. If what they say about the movies is true, you’ll go far ...

--"Once in a Lifetime”

With only a little bit of doctoring and one or two minor anachronisms, “Once in a Lifetime” launched the La Jolla Playhouse summer season not with a roar but a meow.

This production of Kaufman and Hart’s 1930 roasting of the movies, as they whooped, warbled, winced and whined their way into the roaring talkies, was a tad underdone at Sunday’s opening. Some larger-than-life performances were on view, but too many were life-size--no less and no more.

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Ain’t it perverse.

Here is the playhouse, with its history of undaunted excesses, unaccountably restrained on the wrong occasion. It is almost as ironic as this classic saga of three young vaudevillians who sell their act and go West to brazenly set up a school of elocution, of which they know nothing, for nerdy movie stars who know even less.

Visually, Stephen Zuckerman’s staging is gorgeous. Designer Bob Shaw’s cut-out plastic California palms and floor-to-grid Art-Deco studio sets evoke the perfect mix of Hollywood style and sleaze. No problem there, nor any in the witty parade of costumes by Susan Denison Geller that reflect Hollywood’s seminal passion for outre overkill.

More than anyone else in the cast Natalia Nogulich (as the pragmatic May) and Ralph Bruneau (as the lovable Jimmy Stewart-style bumbler, George) capture the halcyon innocence of early Hollywood and run with it. Bruneau is simply irresistible, and Nogulich has a drop-dead flair for the period--vulgarity mixed with vivaciousness and some idiosyncrasies that splendidly serve the character.

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Add Christine Rose’s Helen Hobart, the quintessential gossip columnist with a few idiosyncrasies of her own, and you have essence of Kaufman and Hart at its most potent and distilled.

But what of the rest?

There’s not nearly enough bluster in David Wohl’s pivotal portrait of that major blow-hard, Herman Glogauer, head of Glogauer studios, armed with the show’s most unbeatable lines (“That’s the way we do things around here, no time wasted on thinking!”) Except for a few astute thumb-nail sketches (Mary Catherine Wright’s abstracted Miss Leighton, Marylouise Burke’s dumpy Mrs. Walker, William Duff-Griffin’s imported German director and Ann Yen and Jeri Leer’s terminally dumb movie stars), the production lacks the sounds and smells of illiterate impudence and upstart swagger.

Nor is David Marshall Grant, a normally lovely actor, particularly well cast as that craven hustler, Jerry, third member of our adventurous triangle. Grant is too gentlemanly in a part that requires some getting down and semblance of getting dirty. And the chemistry between him and Nogulich (his nominal fiancee) doesn’t happen.

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Director Zuckerman (who did wonders with such realistic shows as Shannon Keith Kelley’s “Big Apple Messenger” and Tom Topor’s “Nuts”) seems out of his element with the broad, cartoonish strokes required by this out-and-out spoof. He’s holding back an outrageousness that cries out to be encouraged, emboldened, augmented. And his pacing is off.

Case in point: Nicholas Hormann, who is a victim of this miscalculated timing in the play’s choicest cameo as the Kaufman alter-ego, Lawrence Vail. Vail makes a generic (and hilarious) impassioned plea for all playwrights who ever labored in the padded cells of Hollywood’s gilded studios, but at La Jolla these speeches undershoot their punchiness by half a beat--enough to make us see the possibilities but not experience them.

If this sounds like quibbling, it is, because the impression one receives (or did Sunday) is that the show may have opened too soon.

Most of the elements are in place but the machinery needs fine tuning. Grant may never be really right for Jerry, and Wohl may not have the internal combustion for those full-bore Glogauer Goldwynisms, but the rest of this comic engine should be able to pick up both speed and timing. Putting it another way, it’s a show that needs to grow.

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Performances at the Mandell Weiss Theatre on the UC San Diego campus run Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2, until June 26. Tickets: $15-$24; (619) 534-3960.

‘ONCE IN A LIFETIME’

A revival of the 1930 classic comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, presented by the La Jolla Playhouse. Director Stephen Zuckerman. Assistant director Ross S. Wasserman. Set designer Bob Shaw. Costumes Susan Denison Geller. Lighting Richard Winkler. Music Michael S. Roth. Sound Roth and Stephen Erb. Dramaturge Robert Blacker. Stage manager Susan Slagle. Assistant stage manager Linda Fane. Cast Ralph Bruneau, Marylouise Burke, William Duff-Griffin, David Marshall Grant, Nicholas Hormann, Lisa Langlois, Jeri Leer, Gloria Mann, Gregory Millar, Natalia Nogulich, Christine Rose, Tavis Ross, David Wohl, Mary Catherine Wright, Ann Yen and others.


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