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Revival That's 'Once In A Lifetime' : Stars Come Out For Radio Fun

July 28, 1987|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

It had to be somebody's idea of a spoof within a spoof within a spoof. . . . But what a great notion.

Imagine staging a once-in-a-lifetime revival of "Once in a Lifetime," that good-humored lampoon of Hollywood's salad days by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Imagine doing it with a once-in-a-lifetime cast of 22 that included (to name only a few of the leads) John Lithgow, Marsha Mason, Ed Asner, Amy Irving, Nan Martin, Robert Foxworth, Marian Mercer and Rene Auberjonois.

Imagine doing it live on Stage 15 of the former Selznick Studios (now called Culver) where "Gone With the Wind" was immortalized.

And imagine broadcasting it on live radio (KCRW-FM), in front of a lively audience, with this exceptional collection of performers all clearly having the time of their lives.

The event bubbled with irony and champagne. Under Tom Moore's deft direction, it dripped poetic justice and 1920s gaud, including delicious period costumes by Marianna Elliott.

In the seasoned hands of L.A. Classic Theatre Works (an offshoot of L.A. Theatre Works whose debut this is and whose roster of artists reads like a who's who of America's finest), this witty 1924 satire of the wacky world of incipient talkies came off fresh as a popover--as crunchy and addictive as those tooth-cracking Indian nuts consumed by sweet and naive Dr. George Lewis (made all the sweeter by the irresistible Lithgow).

It's a giddy tale (Capra-esque in style, Kafka-esque in absurdity) of the scramble for success in Hollywood when the town was young, spirits high, tastes low, stars silent and producers loud.

George (Lithgow), May (Marsha Mason) and Jerry (Robert Foxworth), a trio of struggling vaudevillians, decide to go for the brass ring, travel West and conquer this new Land of Oz. When George wonders what he'll do out there, Jerry reassures him: "George, you don't know anything about anything, and if what they say about the movies is true, you'll go far."

Indeed George does. And getting there is an uncharted, deliciously zany set of misadventures and terminal silliness in the glitter and fool's gold of the Glogauer Studios.

The way is peppered with vivid caricatures: tout Hollywood gossip columnist Helen Hobart (Marian Mercer); aspiring starlet Susan Walker (Amy Irving); her blathering studio mother (Nan Martin); studio boss Herman Glogauer (Ed Asner in Sam Goldwyn voice and Ben-Gurion look); squealing silent screen stars Phyllis Fontaine (Madolyn Smith) and Florabel Leigh (Bonnie Bedelia); nerdy receptionist Miss Leigh- tuhn (Holly Palance) and an array of pages, chauffeurs and assorted flunkies.

The play's climactic ending is a triumph of accident over reason. Nonsense prevails in a manner that has not changed over the decades and Sunday night's industry audience took unrestrained delight in the unshock of recognition.

Kaufman and Hart couldn't resist the combination: a chance to spoof this brave new world where idiots triumphed, schemes carried the day and writers were locked away in padded cells. (Kaufman himself played the juicy role of playwright Lawrence Vail in the original Broadway production; Auberjonois did him full credit in Sunday's version.)

The prime achievement of L.A. Classic Theatre Works' Sunday broadcast was the pure, unadulterated fun the actors were having. All 22 sat on the stage in full regalia, coming up to the mikes as needed, enjoying each other's turn at bat. They pulled together, swaggered, relished the tiniest cameos (Georgia Brown, Jack Coleman, Fionnula Flanagan and Judge Reinhold ran through a passel of them) and the most flamboyant exchanges (Auberjonois and Lithgow in some matchless parrying). Even some minor technical bloopers near the end were virtually lost in the sheer pleasure of it all.

They don't write comedies like that any more. And they don't often perform them like that any more either.

We may not be able to get all of these actors together all of the time, but some of them some of the time is a reasonable expectation. Whatever the future brings (a pre-recorded reading of Sinclair Lewis' "Babbitt," in toto, is next over KCRW), this company is Los Angeles' newest treasure.

'ONCE IN A LIFETIME' A radio reading of the 1924 comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart presented by L.A. Classic Theatre Works on Stage 15, Culver Studios in Culver City. Producing director Susan Albert Loewenberg. Associate producing director Sara Maultsby. Project director Judith Auberjonois. Director Tom Moore. Setting Jack De Govia. Lighting Martin Aronstein. Costumes Marianna Elliott. Makeup Richard Arias. Hair design Jeffrey Sacino. Additional radio scripting Carl Gottlieb. Radio engineering Tom Strother. Sound effects Ray Erlenborn. Production stage manager Frank Bayer. Cast Ed Begley Jr., Ted Danson, Jo Beth Williams, John Lithgow, Marsha Mason, Robert Foxworth, David Selby, Marian Mercer, Amy Irving, Jack Coleman, Joanna Miles, Fionnula Flanagan, Georgia Brown, Helen Hunt, Judge Reinhold, Richard Masur, Madolyn Smith, Bonnie Bedelia, Holly Palance, Ed Asner, Nan Martin, Rene Auberjonois.

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