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Zuckerman Gives an ‘80s Sensibility to ‘30s ‘Lifetime’

When it comes to Kaufman and Hart’s “Once in a Lifetime,” director Stephen Zuckerman believes that everything old is new.

“There’s a lot of reverberation in this play for me,” said the New York native, whose staging of the 1930 classic continues at La Jolla Playhouse. “There’s a revolution happening in the entertainment industry, changes predicated by advances in hardware technology. In 1928, it was talking films. In 1988, it’s videotape recorders. It’s home video, cable TV, compact discs--and it’s colossal.”

Advancing technology is only part of the changing picture.

“The old guard is going away,” Zuckerman said. “That’s not necessarily a negative or a positive. But the studios are being taken over by big corporations. In the old days, if you were negotiating with a movie company, you could talk with Jack Warner. You can’t talk to (ABC’s parent) Cap Cities or (Columbia Pictures’) Coca-Cola.” And yet, he adds slyly, the quality of Hollywood’s power brokers has changed very little.

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“In this play, (studio chief) Glogauer says, ‘It’s the way we do things here: no time wasted on thinking.’ That’s today.”

The 40-year-old Zuckerman, a graduate of the University of Michigan and Yale School of Drama, takes these realities in stride.

“Like so many before me, I’m coming here and running into the frustrations of Hollywood--ones that are the same as they were 60 years ago. I’ve got 22 actors in this cast, whose relationships with the business have affected their lives in one way or another. And Kaufman and Hart are just as cynical and wise about the foibles of Hollywood as anyone’s ever been.”

The director believes it’s a wisdom that reaches beyond the particulars of one city. “This play,” he said, “was written and produced a scant year after the stock market crash, when people were facing the most devastating period in American history: the Great Depression. So there’s a sense of desperation, tension--and also hope. Financial prospects were greater in Hollywood, especially back then.”

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But don’t look for a period re-creation in Zuckerman’s staging.

“This is not a revisionist production,” he said. “We’re not updating it at all. However, it is a modern production. And though it’s couched in the trappings of Hollywood, at the core of the story is ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.’ So ultimately, that’s what you play: the reality--an ‘80s sensibility to a ‘30s reality. I think attempts at verisimilitude create stilted, boring, undramatic theater. What we’re doing is evoking a period. So if a period hair style is right, but it makes my leading man look like a geek, forget it.”

Zuckerman comes by his confidence from 15 years spent in New York theater, where credits include the original staging of Tom Topor’s “Nuts,” Israel Horovitz’s “The Canadian Trilogy” and Shannon Kelley’s “Big Apple Messenger.” He also worked on soaps (“Search for Tomorrow” and “Guiding Light”), “which I despised. It’s hard to direct something you don’t have any investment in. But I learned how to be a multiple camera operator very, very well. Once you’ve directed soap operas, everything else is easy.”

Sixteen months ago he and his wife, Darlene Kaplan (now a casting agent at Universal), relocated to Los Angeles. “I came out here to do situation comedy,” he said bluntly. “I’m a child of TV. I mean, my parents got a TV in 1950. They didn’t know that TV was bad for you; they just stuck me in front of it and said, ‘Shut up, kid. Watch.’ So I watched Texaco Star Theatre and ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘Make Room for Daddy.’

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“For me, directing TV situation comedy is the closest thing to doing theater: it’s just a 22-minute play that you direct in sequence in front of a live audience--except for the added technology of taping it.” His own TV credits include “Valerie’s Family” (now “The Hogan Family”), “Mr. President,” “My Sister Sam” and “It’s a Living.”

“Like everyone else, I started out wanting to be an actor,” he said. “I had 14 lines and a swordfight with Apollodorus in an eighth grade production of ‘Caesar and Cleopatra.’ But I found out quickly that I’m not a good actor. If you’re smart, you realize that and move on. I’m not sure when I became a director. I guess--this is not my line--at one point you call yourself a director. Then you spend the rest of your life proving you are one.”


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