×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Time of Your Life

The rap against William Saroyan is that he penned mawkish pastiches celebrating the spirit of working stiffs with wacky personalities. But in a startlingly revisionist, fascinating and consistently moving production for Chi's Steppenwolf Theater, director Tina Landau manages to elevate the rarely revived "The Time of Your Life" to epic status.

With:
With: Robert Breuler, Amy Morton, Jeff Perry, Rick Snyder, Guy Adkins, Scott Antonucci, Richard Cotovsky, Dan Flannery, Zach Gray, Timothy Hendrickson, Ann Joseph, Lawrence MacGowan, Donna McGough, Mark L. Montgomery, Patrick New, Yasen Pey-ankov, Heather Anne Prete, Ana Sferruzza, Don Shell, Guy Van Swearingen.

The rap against William Saroyan, an American playwright long regarded as inferior to such contemporaries as George S. Kaufman, Maxwell Anderson and Liliian Hellman, is that he penned mawkish pastiches celebrating the spirit of working stiffs with wacky personalities. But in a startlingly revisionist, fascinating and consistently moving production for Chi’s Steppenwolf Theater, director Tina Landau manages to elevate the rarely revived “The Time of Your Life” to epic status. And since the work was penned when America was on the brink of another war, Landau even throws in some unimistakable references to the current unease about Iraq. It affords Saroyan the status of sage clairvoyant — and gives this show a telling contemporary bite.

Always something of a poet of the broken-hearted, Saroyan approached “The Time of Your Life” in a decidedly musical fashion. In Landau’s hands, the show feels almost like a full-blown musical made up of standards of the late ’30s. One of the major characters, Guy Adkins’ Harry, is a wannabe cabaret singer; he serves as a kind of narrator for the events of the night, as Landau fuses her production with a cornucopia of American song. The play becomes a poignant musical tone poem.

Set in a San Fransisco wharf-front saloon, the play is a collection of character studies. Bartender Nick (Yasen Peyankov) presides over both slumming members of the bourgeoisie and various good-natured working folk — from the sweet cabaret performer with hopeless ambitions to a young African-American struggling to stay alive. The topic of the night is dreams, broken and otherwise, all played out in the great American melting pot, where passions are constrained by prejudice and where economic reality limits all.

The most moneyed character is Joe (Jeff Perry), a sad-eyed man who drops dollars, knocks back booze and tries to reclaim some kind of lost childhood. There’s also a doe-eyed hooker (played beautifully by Heather Anne Prete), a sycophantic young man named Tom (Patrick New) who’s in love with her and various other archetypes of the saloon. Eventually the play turns to an intrusive vice cop to provide the conclusionary dramatic tension. It’s the weakest element of the play — and feels as if Saroyan was desperately seeking some way to bring things to a head.

But Steppenwolf’s legendary acting prowess is firing on all cylinders here, even though the illness of actor Howard Witt means the show suffers from a last-minute cast change in the pivotal role of Kit Carson (now played, haltingly on opening, by Rick Snyder). The taciturn but gripping Perry, one of the theater’s co-founders, is simply extraordinary in the lead role of Joe. Amy Morton (of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is equally powerful in a small role. And while Adkins makes bold broad choices in the role of the poor singer, he’s a dreamy, intoxicating presence and an ideal foil for Peyankov’s guttural barkeep.

Commercial producers with an eye on the show would have to deal with the massive cast size of 24. And the show’s dreamy sensibility requires an audience with patience, willing to ponder quiet truths. But this is the best Steppenwolf production in quite some time — and again demonstrates Landau is at her best when reinvigorating serious period American fare.

The Time of Your Life

Steppenwolf Theater; 511 seats; $50 top

Production: A Steppenwolf Theater Co. presentation of a play in one act by William Saroyan. Directed by Tina Landau. Sets, G.W. Mercer; lighting, Scott Zielinski; costumes, James Schuette, sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Production stage managers, Alden Vazquez and Robert Satterlee. Artistic director, Martha Lavey. Opened Sept 24, 2002; reviewed Sept. 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: With: Robert Breuler, Amy Morton, Jeff Perry, Rick Snyder, Guy Adkins, Scott Antonucci, Richard Cotovsky, Dan Flannery, Zach Gray, Timothy Hendrickson, Ann Joseph, Lawrence MacGowan, Donna McGough, Mark L. Montgomery, Patrick New, Yasen Pey-ankov, Heather Anne Prete, Ana Sferruzza, Don Shell, Guy Van Swearingen.

More Legit

  • Audra McDonald Frankie and Johnny

    Listen: How Audra McDonald Faced Her Fear in 'Frankie and Johnny'

    When producers offered Audra McDonald a role in “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” opposite Michael Shannon, she immediately said yes. Then she remembered the nude scene. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “Hell, yes, there was trepidation,” the Tony-winning actress said on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. “I was [...]

  • A Strange Loop review

    Off Broadway Review: 'A Strange Loop'

    “No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write,” sings the anxiety-ridden lead character in Michael R. Jackson’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exasperating new musical, “A Strange Loop,” at Playwrights Horizons. The abundantly talented Jackson takes the otherwise tired trope of the young, poor and sensitive artist trying to discover his true self and [...]

  • Richard E Grant Everybody's Talking About

    Richard E. Grant to Play Former Drag Queen in 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie'

    Oscar-nominated actor Richard E. Grant will portray a former drag queen and mentor in “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” the movie adaptation of the British stage musical. “Catastrophe” co-creator and star Sharon Horgan and “Happy Valley” star Sarah Lancashire have also joined the film. Max Harwood will play the titular role of Jamie, a role inspired [...]

  • The Secret Life of Bees review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Secret Life of Bees'

    There’s a sweet sense of sisterhood that’s simply divine in “The Secret Life of Bees,” the heartwarming new musical at the Atlantic Theater Company based on Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling 2002 coming-of-age novel, set in South Carolina in 1964 amid Civil Rights struggles. (A 2008 film adaptation starred Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah.) The feeling [...]

  • 10 Comics to Watch

    Variety Announces 10 Comics to Watch for 2019

    Variety has chosen its 10 Comics to Watch for 2019. The honorees will be profiled in the July 18 issue of Variety and at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal at a cocktail party on Thursday, July 25, followed by a panel and showcase on Friday, July 26. The events are sponsored by Cohen & Gardner LLP. The [...]

  • Vanessa Hudgens So You Think You

    Vanessa Hudgens, Hailey Kilgore to Star in Reading of 'The Notebook' Musical

    Vanessa Hudgens and Tony-nominee Hailey Kilgore are joining an upcoming reading of Ingrid Michaelson’s stage adaptation of “The Notebook” by Nicholas Sparks. Tony nominee Michael Greif is set to direct the reading, which will open June 23 at Vassar College’s Martel Theater as part of their Powerhouse Theater season. Kilgore will star as the younger [...]

  • Moulin Rouge director Alex Timbers

    'Beetlejuice,' 'Moulin Rouge!' Director Alex Timbers on Creating Worlds on Broadway

    In the past year, Alex Timbers has directed the Tony-nominated “Beetlejuice” and the stage adaptation of “Moulin Rouge!” (which begins previews June 28 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre). Here, he reflects on his most recent projects and the challenges of bringing two iconic movie musicals to Broadway within a year.  Both your musicals live in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content