Call it an unlucky second outing for “Once in a Lifetime,” the period American comedy that proved a sizable hit for the Royal Shakespeare Company a quarter-century ago. Revived at the National, with David Suchet in the same role of the hyper Hollywood mogul he played last time around, the 1930 collaboration between Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman is showing its age, and Edward Hall’s overwrought, forced staging further exposes the play’s seams.
It’s easy to see the play’s appeal to Britain’s two largest subsidized theaters. Its ample cast (30 in this rendering), multiple locations and overripe American vowels are inevitable catnip to a London playhouse looking to spread Christmas cheer. From “Anything Goes” to “Singin’ in the Rain” and even the stage preem of “His Girl Friday,” the Olivier auditorium often has played home to boisterous Yanks, Brit-style. But a little goes an exceedingly long way in a production that gives the impression of not trusting its source. Can it be that Hall had a hard look at the material and found precious little there?
Or perhaps it’s that “Lifetime’s” story of three New York vaudevillians transplanted to Hollywood in the early years of the talkies has been superseded so often — not least by “Singin’ in the Rain,” whose squawking Lina Lamont finds a near-chorus of equivalent femmes here.
Show gets mild comic momentum from the mere fact of going Hollywood (“That’s bad,” we’re told), but what needs to be feather-light is instead all too labored. The “new invention called talking pictures” seems awfully old terrain.
Play begins in the Broadway theater district in 1927 where our trio of Variety-reading wannabes are collectively titillated by their first talkie. In between loudly cracking nuts, the mousy George (Adrian Scarborough) speaks portentously of “the legitimate stage look(ing) to its laurels,” while he scoops up cohorts May (Victoria Hamilton) and Jerry (Lloyd Hutchinson) and heads west.
Anticipating their ability to make hay as elocutionists amid an industry in its infancy, the three small-timers soon are accompanied by a stage full of enthusiastic extras singing, “California, Here I Come!”
“Lifetime” isn’t a musical but Hall dresses it up as one, the various musical routines staged by Rob Ashford merely padding an evening considerably shorter than it seems. “Take Me Back to Manhattan” and “Hooray for Hollywood” are pressed into service, as well, to little effect other than to populate a parade of art deco Mark Thompson sets more impressive than attractive. (Celluloid strips and film reels are the prevailing visual motifs.) The costumes, also by Thompson, are as glitzy as might be expected from a red-carpet milieu that values glitter over common sense.
La La-land introduces our visitors to a pushy gossip maven (Issy Van Randwyck), a monocled German director (Tim McMullan) and a New York playwright (Jonathan McGuinness) who suffers a breakdown from “underwork.”
In a monomaniacal class all his own is the striped-suited studio shark Herman Glogauer, played by a drolly glowering Suchet, whose bullish authority is ideally suited to such roles. In Hollywood, he snaps, “No time (is) wasted on thinking,” which in turn allows May and Jerry to pass themselves off as speech experts from England and the dimwit George to effect a singular rise through the ranks.
May speaks of not wanting to be made to feel “like a second-act climax,” but “Once in a Lifetime,” truth to tell, doesn’t work that way: Its comedy is rooted in the occasionally deft one-liner, not an agglomeration of events.
A few remarks isolate precisely the drawbacks of a production that doesn’t capitalize on its own degree of bustle. “Everywhere I go, they act at me,” snarls Glogauer, his complaint truer than he knows. And when George asks at the end of the first act “why people don’t act human anymore,” one is tempted to respond: Why doesn’t he?