Once again the Williamstown Theater Festival is giving theatergoers a chance to see a multiset, large-cast play that few other organizations could afford to produce. Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1930 satire of Hollywood, previously seen here in 1961 and 1972, is receiving a typically lavish production including five sets, a cast of about 60 (including two glamorous white show dogs) and movie projections. The play itself, ironically, suffers from the same failing as the early talkies — it’s all talk and no action — but it’s fascinating to see a budget-breaking period piece resuscitated with such flair, its huge forces marshaled with elan by director Michael Greif.
The leading players aren’t always ideal, but at least two are a joy: Peter Frechette as a New York playwright going crazy in Hollywood because he’s never been given anything to write, and Kristine Nielsen in a wildly enthusiastic performance as a completely self-absorbed film critic/columnist. Nielsen, in addition, is given eye-popping period costumes by Linda Cho, whose contributions throughout are terrif.
Storyline follows an out-of-work vaudeville trio who go to Hollywood to take advantage of the introduction of sound; their aim is to open a school that teaches silent movie actors how to speak. The silliness and sheer stupidity of Hollywood is mercilessly guyed throughout.
The vaudeville trio should dominate the play more than it does at the WTF. Instead of appearing to be longtime partners, Tom Riis Farrell, Lauren Graham and Tate Donovan look as though they’ve just met, with Donovan making little impression. And none is a convincing vaudeville type.
Farrell plays his bumbling deadpan role too low-key at first, but as the character ends up pretty much running a film studio (even if he does make a film from the wrong script), he grows more and more amusing. Graham may have the best of it even if she isn’t helped by her hairdo.
Joe Grifasi makes his mark as the European-accented Glogauer of Glogauer Studios. Rocco Sisto blusters effectively as a monocled, whip-carrying German director. Emily Bergl is aptly dumb as a would-be movie star. And dozens of amusing bits of business are presented by various members of the vast cast, though not all project their lines clearly.
Actually, the live actors have a hard time living up to the opening of the production, which features Al Jolson’s famous “Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye” scene from the first talkie, 1927’s “The Jazz Singer.”
It’s screened on the rear of designer Allen Moyer’s empty film-studio setting. Other projections and Jolson songs are used elsewhere, including a train sequence as the vaudeville trio cross the country in a Pullman car. The projections, courtesy of Elaine J. McCarthy, are expertly done, bringing the production to a hilarious close as early flying footage fills the stage (Dr. Lewis has bumbled again by buying 2,000 planes, but once again is saved from his own incompetence when Hollywood decides to make flying movies and his studio has cornered the market on planes).
Moyer also makes terrific additional visual contributions including a dazzling yellow and gold art-deco lobby set for the Glogauer Studios reception area (it’s odd, though, that there’s so little evidence of sound equipment in the play’s movie-shooting scene).
All-talking “Once in a Lifetime” isn’t prime Kaufman & Hart, but this WTF revival of it is generous enough to give audiences some idea of how hysterical it must have been when first seen 72 years ago.