William Saroyan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1930s social fable is treated with such reverence by the Group Repertory Theatre the play never takes on a life of its own. Though the action is anchored by Lonny Chapman’s wonderful portrayal of the alcoholic benefactor Joe, director Bert Rosario has imbued the ensemble’s interplay with little more vitality than a static play reading: All the lines are heard distinctly, but there is very little characterization behind them.
It is 1939, and Saroyan’s downtrodden denizens of Nick’s San Francisco waterfront honky-tonk are a poignant reflection of America’s struggle to rise above the numbing debilitation of the Depression.
Under the crusty but benevolent eye of Nick (Lou Volpe), myriad lost souls gather to numb their senses and feed their dreams: Kitty (Liz Porter), the whore with the innocence of a child; Harriett (Mary Ann Miller), the talentless comedienne/dancer with dreams ofstardom; Kit Carson (Larry Eisenberg), the mountain man with a million tales; Dudley (Van Boudreaux), the lovesick youth whose whole life is controlled by just one part of his body; and McCarthy (Philip McKeown), a philosophical longshoreman whose intellect has been channeled into fighting for workers’ rights.
The wealthy but enigmatic Joe (Chapman) is a constant presence in the bar, dispensing meandering philosophy to everyone, and cryptic orders to his henchman , the slow-witted but good-hearted Tom (Skip Parry). As Joe saturates himself in champagne, he strives valiantly to bring happiness to anyone who enters the domain of his table at Nick’s.
Director Rosario gives his ensemble few tools to work with, but there are two performances that shine above the limitations of the staging. Eisenberg offers a virtuoso demonstration of the art of the monologue, delivering the searingly original reminiscenses of the semi-mad character. Also memorable is the physical comedy of Jeff Davis as the Drunkard, akin to Red Skelton’s renowned drunk, Freddie the Freeloader.
The bar setting by Malcom Atterbury Jr. and Desma Murphy captures perfectly the atmosphere of the times. But Mason Malone’s inconsistent lighting is more a hindrance than a help.