×

Once in a Lifetime

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, the 1930 collaboration between Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman is showing its age.

With:
George Lewis - Adrian Scarborough May Daniels - Victoria Hamilton Jerry Hyland - Lloyd Hutchinson Herman Glogauer - David Suchet Lawrence Vail - Jonathan McGuinness Helen Hobart - Issy Van Randwyck Susan Walker - Caroline Sheen Mrs. Walker - Marcia Warren Miss Leighton - Serena Evans

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“Lifetime’s” story of three New York vaudevillians transplanted to Hollywood in the early years of the talkies has been superseded so often — not least by “Singin’ in the Rain,” whose squawking Lina Lamont finds a near-chorus of equivalent femmes here.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?

Once in a Lifetime

National Theater/Olivier; 1,111 SEATS; £36 ($63.50) TOP)

Production: LONDON A National Theater presentation of a play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman in two acts. Directed by Edward Hall.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Mark Thompson; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; musical staging, Rob Ashford; musical arrangements and direction, Martin Lowe; sound, Paul Groothuis. Opened, reviewed Dec. 15, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast: George Lewis - Adrian Scarborough May Daniels - Victoria Hamilton Jerry Hyland - Lloyd Hutchinson Herman Glogauer - David Suchet Lawrence Vail - Jonathan McGuinness Helen Hobart - Issy Van Randwyck Susan Walker - Caroline Sheen Mrs. Walker - Marcia Warren Miss Leighton - Serena EvansWith: Paul Cawley, Alexis Owen Hobbs, Jack Tarlton, Nicholas Tizzard, William Osborne, Kate Best, Alan Cooke, Edwina Cox, Lisa Donmall, Akiya Henry, Inika Leigh Wright, Sarah Annis, Tim McMullan, Emma Tunmore, Rachel Stanley, Joshua Dallas, Adam Shipway, Michael Rouse, Nick Fletcher, Paul Basleigh.

More Legit

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

  • Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac to Star in Anton Chekhov's 'Three Sisters' Adaptation

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac are taking on an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” for New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan. The company announced on Tuesday that they will feature two final performances to round out the 2019 to 2020 season, including the Chekhov play. “Three Sisters” will be directed by Tony award-winning Sam [...]

  • montreal just for laughs Comedy Festival

    Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival Is the 'Coachella of Comedy'

    Every summer, Montreal becomes the epicenter of the comedy world as the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival takes over the Canadian city. Now in its 37th year, the mindboggling scale of the festival is there in the numbers: more than 1,600 artists from across the globe (speaking English, French and other languages) performing 250 shows [...]

  • The dark Manhatten skyline, seen from

    StubHub Refunds $500,000 to Customers Shut Out by New York Blackout

    Saturday’s blackout in New York had an outsized effect on the city’s nightlife, with Madison Square Garden and the entire Broadway district seeing multiple shows cancelled due to the the power outage. As a result, StubHub has refunded more than $500,000 worth of tickets for cancelled events. According to a statement from the company, the StubHub [...]

  • Warner Music Group Logo

    Warner Music Acquires Musical Theater Indie First Night Records

    Warner Music Group has acquired First Night Record, an independent record label for West End and Broadway musical theatre cast recordings. The company will be overseen by WMG’s Arts Music Division, led by President Kevin Gore. First Night co-founder John Craig will join the Arts Music team under a multi-year consulting agreement to identify and record musical theatre productions in [...]

  • Broadway

    Broadway Back In Biz After Power Outage Ends

    The bright lights of Broadway were back on Sunday morning as midtown Manhattan recovered from a power outage that lasted nearly seven hours in some areas. Social media was full of examples of how New Yorkers rose to the occasion after the power went out on a hot Saturday night shortly before 7 p.m. ET. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content