George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1930 satire on the dawn of talking pictures , “Once in a Lifetime,” still produces a goodly sampling of verbal and sight gags, and director David Pittu has whipped a cast of 21 actors (in more than 40 roles) into a briskly paced send-up. Pittu trusts his authors, and while some situations and characters have become cliches, the satirical romp remains an innocent nod to a bygone era.
Attempting to cash in on the Hollywood gold rush, three second-rate vaudevillians sell their tired act and head west to open an elocution school. Gaining the favor of a movie mogul, the trio gain a certain amount of influence in the industry before bringing near-ruin to the studio.
Peppered with extravagant performances and delightfully silly cartoon characters, the show never seems crowded on the Atlantic’s small stage. Bellhops , porters, chauffeurs and leggy starlets flit about trains, soundstages and hotel lobbies with giddy abandon. The break-neck tempo is vital and the antics suffer from any stalls along the way.
John Ellison Conlee is grand as a doltish vaudevillian who blunders into success by repeating simple words of theatrical wisdom he has read (most often in Variety). Johanna Day captures the flavor of the era as his aggressively flippant partner. When Larry Bryggman, as the hot-tempered, bumbling studio chief, points a dictatorial finger, it becomes a peninsula.
Cynthia Darlow is a gushing syndicated columnist from the Hedda Hopper mold, Kate Blumberg a winsome ingenue, and Peter Jacobson raps his riding crop with frequent frustration as the German film director.
Kaufman not only co-wrote the play, he also staged it and appeared as the neglected playwright in the original 1930 production; in homage to him, Pittu appears in that role of Lawrence Vail. (But he misses the manic desperation Max Wright summoned for the 1978 Circle in the Square revival.)
The period costumes are dapper and colorful, and the compact set changes, wrapped in a golden-edged proscenium arch, boast a Technicolor gloss.
Adolph Green and Betty Comden may have refined the familiar elements of spoofing early talkies with their classic screenplay for “Singin’ in the Rain,” but Kaufman and Hart got there first. Sixty-eight years later, their first collaboration remains an amiable antic treat.
For the record, “Once in a Lifetime” opened at the Music Box on Sept. 24, 1930, and ran for 406 performances. Peter Bogdanovich directed a York Playhouse revival in 1964, and Adam Arkin appeared in an ETC Theatre Co. production in 1975. The 1978 Broadway revival at Circle in the Square featured John Lithgow, Treat Williams, Jayne Meadows Allen and George S. Irving.