May Daniels (Julia Coffey), George Lewis (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Patrick Lane, center), and Jerry Hyland (John Wernke) on the train to California. Photo by Kevin Berne.

ONCE IN A LIFETIME by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, Directed by Mark Rucker. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA. 415.749.2228 or www.act-sf.org September 22–October 16, 2011


They just don’t make them like that anymore. What you may ask? Plays written in three acts with a distinct beginning/set up in act one, a second act racing to a climactic problem and a third act solution. That is the way Once in a Lifetime was written 81 years ago and although it showed its age in a few spots, it has been given new life in Mark Rucker’s fun filled, campy, clownish, comical, madcap (take your choice of adjectives) staging that seem to thrill the audience for most of the 2 1/2 hour running time (two intermissions).

It is the 1930s and a singing/dancing trio playing in second-rate theaters see the end of vaudeville with the advent of “taking pictures” when Vitaphone’s The Jazz Singer hit the screen. May (Julia Coffey), the brains of the outfit, her love interest Jerry (John Wernke) and not too bright but loveable George (Patrick Lane) devise a money making scheme to teach the silent screen stars how to talk. You do remember those elocution scenes from Singin’ in the Rain? They hop the first train to Hollywood in a knock-your-eye-out parlor car set (George Ostling) arriving in Hollywood where they meet and mingle with innumerable zany characters. Fifteen actors play 70 parts and there is no way you will keep them straight.

The play as written is a lampoon with broad cutting satire on the foibles of the denizens of the kooky world that was early Hollywood. First up is Helen Hobart (marvelous Rene Augesen) a gossip columnist that is a knockoff of Hedda Hopper and a ditzy no talent actress Susan Walker (Ashley Wickett) who is traveling with her mother (versatile Margo Hall who takes on five other roles, four of whom are men). There is the money-grabbing producer Herman Glogauer (Will Lebow), his sycophant Weisskoff, egotistical German director Rudolph Kammerling (Kevin Robins) and officious “no one gets by me” receptionist Miss Leighton (scene stealer and audience favorite Nick Gabriel).

The action is non-stop frenetic farce that moves with breakneck speed, at times at the expense of a delicious punch line. Director Mark Rucker and his staff pull out all the stops with gorgeous sets and old movie clips to match 1930s period costumes (Alex Jaeger) that abound. Of the three who invade Hollywood to make their fortune in teaching elocution Julia Coffey is great as the level-headed one but Patrick Lane earns the most accolades with his deadpan delivery of innocence personified.

Rucker throws in a superbly choreographed (Amy Anders Corcoran) curtain call that will broaden that grin you will have held through most of the show. The technical aspects will not have you forgetting the Knee-High production of Brief Encounter but it is a memorable evening not to be missed.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of www.theatreworldinternetmagazine.com