Newsday, June 1, 1998

"A Tinseltown Satire That Still Has Bite"
by Aileen Jacobson

ONCE IN A LIFETIME. By Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, directed by David Pittu, sets by James Noone, costumes by Meg Neville, lighting by Howard Werner, Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St., Manhattan. Seen Thursday.

"That’s the way we do things around here, no time wasted on thinking," says a character explaining the Hollywood way. "You don't know anything about anything. If what they say about the movies is true, you'll go far," predicts another about a sweet but dim-witted colleague. And, indeed, he does. No time wasted on thinking for him.

The surprising thing is that Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, in the first of their eight made-in-heaven collaborations, hadn't even visited Hollywood when they crafted "Once in a Lifetime." Their hilarious 1930 Tinseltown satire, which set the standard for all others yet to come, was based entirely on what they read in "Variety" and heard through gossip. But no one who’s sent up Hollywood since then has ever contradicted their conclusions.

It's nearly as surprising to find this confection--and in a sterling production that plays the comedy as though it were fresh-minted--at the Atlantic Theater Company, where drama and black comedy tend to prevail. The rather dour and dark Irish play, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," since moved to Broadway, was last seen on this stage.

Director David Pittu guides his versatile cast of 21 through about twice as many roles, all played with period-true piquancy. He also takes one on himself--of a hapless writer who’s arrived in Hollywood as "one of a shipment of 16 playwrights," a role Kaufman himself played in the original production.

James Noone's sets, lit by Howard Werner, evoke B-movie glamour, while Meg Neville's costumes capture the glitz of the nouveau rich and famous. The scratchy-sounding swells of movie music that separate scenes also help to set the tone. Because it's all so retro and so fast-paced, it's easy to overlook the stereotypes that occasionally pop up.

Set in 1927, just as talkies were coming in, the play focuses on three vaudevillians who decide to head west and set up an elocution school to help movie actors make the transition. They include the tough-talking and practical-minded May Daniels--beautifully played by Johanna Day in a performance that should earn the Eve Arden award for split-second, dead-pan timing--her fiance Jerry Hyland (Tony Carlin, who does nicely in the least showy of the lead roles) and their aforementioned dim-witted partner, George Lewis. John Ellison Conlee brings slowness of thought to dizzy new heights in an adorable performance.

But what makes this production fun throughout is that snappy performances show up all over the place, even when the actors play bellhops or cigarette girls. Leslie Beatty and Isabel Keating strike wonderful poses as two haughty silent screen stars whose voices screech like chalk on a blackboard. Peter Jacobson caricatures an overlyartistic German director with a killer accent, while Susan Knight gets laughs as an officious receptionist. Kate Blumberg shines in the role of a not-very-talented ingenue, while Amelia White puts some oomph in the role of her mother.

In larger parts, Cynthia Darlow plays a gloriously flamboyant movie journalist who revels in her power and in the gifts she receives, and Larry Bryggman hits the right notes as studio mogul Herman Glogauer, who hires, fires and rehires the enterprising elocution trio. Glogauer laments the golden days when he could easily make money in the movies even when he made a good one. This is a play, not a movie, but it's definitely one of the good ones.

Copyright 1998, Newsday Inc.