Stage Reviews : Missed Opportunities in ‘Time of Your Life’

Some plays have a life of their own, despite what’s done to them in certain productions. Take, for example, William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life,” the Depression-era bar play that can make “The Iceman Cometh” seem brief in comparison--depending on how it’s staged. Ten years ago, at South Coast Repertory, you understood why Saroyan’s reputation rested on this broad, ribald, rambling social tableau.

Currently, at Al’s Bar, you’re not so sure. A double jeopardy of uneven casting and an ill-considered directorial concept cripple a work that requires a firm ensemble sense and an inventive eye.

The disappointments in David Charles Keeton’s production are immediate. Presumably, the reason to do “The Time of Your Life” at Al’s Bar is to use the atmosphere of this east downtown-based bohemian mecca, and stage the play around the bar itself. Stepping inside, one finds business as usual at the bar, with the show ready to go on in the cramped, backroom stage area. Production designer Edward (Flash) Meyers did yeoman’s work trying to re-create Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon (San Francisco, circa 1939), but the space is far too tiny to accommodate the action.

Talk about missed opportunities. Such a potential environmental staging as Al’s Bar promised would have been just the infusion of fresh thinking that the play needs. Especially a play so full of traps for the less-than-careful director.


Saroyan, for instance, fills his two-act with long and short speeches for most of his nearly two dozen characters. They come to the foreground for their moments, then recede into the bar’s background. The thin spine of a story, involving Joe, a world-weary hustler (Van Quattro); his gofer, Tom (Tom Villard), and Tom’s flame, Kitty (Lee Garlington), barely keeps the play’s skeletal structure in place, and it certainly doesn’t conceal Saroyan’s rather mechanical, contrived design of speeches folded into plot lines.

Only a complete on-stage world, with an ensemble that draws us in, can make “The Time of Your Life” come alive. Rather than cloaking the contrivances, Keeton’s constrained pseudo-atmospherics inadvertently expose them. Combine this with Al’s flimsy plastic seats with no lower back support, and the results are a literally painful experience.

Quattro and Villard have found a rapport with each other, though, that gives their characters’ feudalistic relationship some meaning. Quattro suggests as well the self-loathing burrowing deep inside Joe. There isn’t much to do with Kitty, who is a kind of torch song incarnate, but Garlington makes us believe that she would be desperate enough to run off with Tom.

Among the background hangers-on, Carmen Filpi’s Kit Carson, Bernadette Sabath’s gender-switching double-role as a newsboy and a nurse and Eliot Douglass’ starving pianist are aptly cast. Most incisive of all is Barry Kivel’s vice-squad captain, whose every entrance sends off alarms.

At 305 S. Hewitt St., Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, 5 p.m., through May 3. Tickets: $10; (213) 466-1767.