A big part of Hollywood lore centers on those galvanic days in the late 1920s when the silents became the talkies, leaving as casualties pipsqueak-voiced leading men and foreign-born actresses unable to shed their heavy accents.
The crazy transition period--when fat, self-satisfied moguls had to re-create the industry and find stars who could act with their voices as well as their bodies--forms the bent backbone of Kaufman and Hart's 57-year-old comedy "Once in a Lifetime," now being resurrected at Chapman College.
The first of Kaufman and Hart's many collaborations finds them skewering myopic studio heads, sycophantic seconds, hazy-brained starlets, wildly excessive spending and the monolithic, impenetrable corporations that finance the movies: You get the feeling not that much has changed in the last five decades.
"Once in a Lifetime" is really not a great play. It's clever and, at times, broadly original, but rarely does it reach the heights of Kaufman and Hart's best work, like "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1939) or "You Can't Take it With You" (1936).
The story of three unemployed vaudevillians who come to Hollywood to teach elocution lessons to the stars and who get involved in one mess after another, "Once in a Lifetime" has an overextended air about it, like a wonderful 15-minute skit stretched into two hours. About midway through the second of its three acts, the play begins to sag, and so does Chapman College's production.
Director Ron Thronson, aided by Gerry Griffin's bold Art Deco sets and Iris Gerbasi's period costumes, has evoked the movie milieu of the '30s impressively and has injected a certain giddiness, but he fails to mitigate the comedy's long-windedness. In fact, he exacerbates it.
His biggest error is in letting his cast become too playful, too actorish. There aren't really any terrible performances here, just ones that try too hard to be funny. Kaufman and Hart's good lines could be delivered with a straight face and they would still get laughs. Beyond that, several of the actors seem to have mistaken noisiness for comedy, and some of the accents need improving and clarifying (how about some elocution lessons right here?).
On the positive side, portrayals by Margie Leggett as May, the trio's glib ringleader; Erik Van Beuzekom as Jerry, May's smooth boyfriend, and Clayton Halsey as Lawrence Vail, the underused and frustrated playwright, are reasonably scaled.
As George, a soft-headed vaudevillian who becomes a soft-headed director, Joel Moffett is fine during his restrained moments but annoying when he becomes clamorous. Stacy Bell and Gina Veltri are Betty Boop-cute as two leading ladies who have trouble talking.
Thronson's decision to project vintage '30s movies (lots of Al Jolson and "The Jazz Singer") during set changes was a good one, but actresses bounding out to announce new scenes is obtrusive and unnecessary.
'ONCE IN A LIFETIME' A Chapman College production of Kaufman and Hart's comedy. Directed by Ron Thronson. With Joel Moffett, Margie Leggett, Erik Van Beuzekom, Jennifer Courdy, Lynell Markert, Stacy Bell, Gina Veltri, Tiffany Welch, Andrew DeAngelo, Clayton Halsey, Roger Mathey, David La Bonte, Christian Josi and Ben Nichols. Sets by Gerry Griffin. Lighting by Ron Coffman. Costumes by Iris Gerbasi. Plays through Nov. 15, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. in the campus's Waltmar Theatre, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Tickets: $5, $3. (714) 997-6812.