One of the joys of “Once in a Lifetime,” George S. Kaufman’s and Moss Hart’s sparkling spoof of Hollywood during the take-over of the talkies, is that its comic observations about the movie biz remain witty and relevant even 70 years later. In Hollywood, it seems, some things never change.
In 1930, when “The Jazz Singer” becomes a hit and actors now need a voice as well as good looks, a trio of small-time vaudevillians — George (David Kaufman), May (Kristina Hayes), and Jerry (Rob Boltin) — decide to make their fame and fortune by heading West to open a school of elocution. With the support of grandiose movie critic Helen Hobart (played to wonderfully droll dramatic excess by Tiffany Henshaw), their success at the studio of bombastic movie mogul Herman Glogauer (the excellent Michael Laskin) seems assured.
But eventually things fall apart, and although his partners are headed down the tubes, George innocently bumbles his way to the top, where his every misstep hilariously becomes a pot of gold.
As directed by Chris Hart (son of Moss), the show gets off to an uncertain start in act one, where we meet George, May and Jerry. Kaufman is an adorable dorky delight as the dimwitted George, but Hayes and Boltin are not nearly as distinct in their charac-terizations. The resulting lack of contrast drains a lot of the snap from their relationship and leaves some of the humor falling flat. Then Jessica Pennington arrives on the scene. With her pouty, dimpled smile, wide-eyed inno-cence and Shirley Temple curls, Pennington is an all-out charmer as George’s clueless cutie pie, actress Susan Walker.
The play gathers steam in act two, when we meet Glogauer’s sweetly stupid receptionist, Miss Leighton (the irrepressible Eydie Alyson) and playwright Lawrence Vale (David Youse), a desperate writer who’s cracking up from lack of work. The witty repartee be-tween these two dissimilar charac-ters is smart and vibrant, a fine example of what’s missing in the earlier act.
The tone of the show is well established at the outset by David Mark Peterson’s splendid lineup of period musical selections, and film clips of Al Jolson offer a nostalgic distraction during lengthy scene changes. George Cybulski’s di-verse set designs range from appropriate shabbiness to ’30s chic, while Shon Le Blanc’s gor-geous costumes and Michelle Santillan’s terrific makeup and wigs perfectly complement this somewhat uneven but entertaining production.