Saturday, February 28, 2004

Play: The Wide-Flanged Beam of Diamocles

The Time of Your Life By William Saroyan, Directed by Tina Landau, Seattle Rep.

This is a slice of life play, in this case in the slice removed from a seedy San Francisco bar in the late 1930's. Characters bustle in and out and stories weave around each other, and at the center is a character named Joe (Jeff Perry), who seems to be either being drinking himself to death, or playing Magic Christian to the people who come into the bar, aiding and entertaining as he moves through their lives.

The main plot revolves around Joe, who has money but no visible support, and his sidekick Tom (Patrick New), who Joe sends out on all sorts of nonsense errands - toys, magazines, and a watermelon (well, he forgets about the watermelon). Tom falls for Kitty, a soiled dove with dreams of normalcy. Around this slender plot are a mass of characters who drift into the bar - the old Armenian philosopher, the former cowboy who herded cattle on a bike, a starving young black man who becomes the house pianist, a pair of swells who are slumming, and young man despondant about hard-hearted sweetheart. And a really bad comedian who is a really great dancer - though amazingly, his comedy routine, which makes people happy but won't make them laugh, is a poetry slam fifty years too soon.

So the characters swirl and ebb and slosh into each other, while there are labor troubles on the docks and vice raids on the girls. The direction pitches everything together - lines run over each other, minor characters are continually in motion in the background, everyone is doing bits while the main action is across the stage. And then one of the mains gets a speech, and everything freezes (or at least slows down) as they get their moment. In normal play-time, these would be solid lumps set down in the midst of it all (like in Shaw's still-undigestable Misaliance), but here, they are breathers from the bustle. The actors are on the stage, in character, before the lights go down, and stay on stage during the intermission. The effect is to sell the reality of this, they are incredibly effective.

And through it all comes out Saroyan's main thrust - life is to be lived - embraced, wrestled to the ground, and loved. Joe is hunting for it, and bringing it, often effortlessly and without realizing it, to the people around them. The play, with its huge cast, cannot be contained on the stage, and sprawls out into the audience. The pinball machine is out in one aisle, the telephone in the other, and some of the balcony seats are replaced by tiny B-girl rooms. The bar itself has no walls, and we see past it to the docks - labor trouble, cops, and Salvation Army and all. And rising above it all a crane hanging a huge wide-flange beam over the proceedings and the audience, both a symbol of rebuilding lives from the depression and the approaching doom of WWII.

The huge cast is wonderful. Most are from the Steppenwolf production of the play, so are not the Rep regulars, and that disconnect works. Instead of seeing of familiar faces in roles, these are fresh and we're willing to get more into character than acting. We like these people by the end of the first act, and we're worried about them as we move to the end of the second. And at the hub is Jeff Perry, who has extensive television credits and was recognized by a large number of Nash Bridges fans in the audience. For me, he was a wonderful first appearance, and just wonderful in the role (and as a factoid I have found out later, Jimmy Cagney had the role in the movie version).

Risking a sentimental hodge-podge, Director Landau instead creates actingJazz, the rhythm and notes working together in a swirling. This is the land that Steinbeck wrote of and Hopper painted, the tale end of the Depression, when things were about to get worse. It does have a connection with us today, in our After Eleven world, of what's it like to be alive when the world itself is changing gears.

Kate and I both liked this one. Recommended.

More later,