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THEATER : Acting Moments Fill 'Time'

October 18, 1990|JAN HERMAN | Jan Herman covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

William Saroyan describes the 1939 setting for "The Time of Your Life," which is being revived by the Professional Actors Conservatory of Rancho Santiago College, as a specifically "American place." It is a San Francisco waterfront bar, home to every imaginable neighborhood type.

The Irish are here, along with the Italians and the Arabs. The hookers stop by along with the swells. So do the cops and the dockworkers, the sailors and the drunks, the newsboys and the con men, the lovelorn and the simply lost. The place fairly teems with the species Homo Americanus like a zoo on a quietly domestic Sunday morning.

But Nick's Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant and Entertainment Palace could have existed only in Saroyan's affectionate world, certainly not in the real one then or now.

The righteous proprietor of Nick's live-and-let-live honky-tonk pours free drinks, takes a strictly fatherly interest in the local hookers, provides meals as well as work for the unemployed and gets regular visits from his white-haired, old mother.

And Nick isn't even the hallowed saint of this whimsically meandering, post-Depression paean to the common man in the oncoming shadow of war.

That honor goes to a gentle Irishman with a bum leg, one of the saloon regulars named Joe. He sits around drinking champagne, while flirting with the ladies and dispensing dollar bills from his vest-pocket bankroll to anyone who shows the slightest need of money. Joe's largess goes so far that it extends beyond mere acquaintances to anonymous passers-by on the street.

Because "The Time of Your Life" is virtually all texture and no plot, a series of acting "moments" strung out over nearly three hours, it depends on the quality of the players. Moreover, the very reasons that make it a difficult play to negotiate--26 speaking roles, for example--also make it a desirable choice for a training program.

Victor Pappas's PAC staging happily manages to finesse the problem of cast inexperience with directorial clarity and several nicely shaped collegiate performances, despite a glaring weakness in the central role of Joe, which is wanly played by Phillip Beck (the lone professional actor and, ironically, the conservatory director).

If Mark Ciglar gives the comedy's most extroverted and entertaining performance as Kit Carson, a western old-timer with a con man's gift of gab and a skein of eccentric stories, Darin Heames gives the most authentic performance as Dudley, a bespectacled young man desperately trying to connect with the woman he loves on the saloon's public telephone.

As Harry the would-be hoofer-comedian, Pete Benson somehow creates the illusion that he can do a bit of soft shoe, though he doesn't really seem a dancer. Much more than that, Benson captures the yearning innocence that one imagines Gene Kelly projecting as the original Harry on Broadway. In his climactic speech, which is one of the subtler peaks of the play, Benson achieves a wonderful, double-edged flush of emotion.

Meanwhile, James Rice gives a solid-as-rock portrayal of Nick. Sam Zeller brings a blushing energy to the boyish Tom. Betsy Ferguson has the right look as Kitty, though she needs more personal allure.

Notable cameos include Barth L. Maher as the union intellectual, Dan Cole as the sadistic vice cop, Terra Shelman as the society lady and Jeff Hutcherson as a drunk who bounces off the furniture like a billiard ball.

What: "The Time of Your Life."

When: Thursday, Oct. 18, through Saturday, Oct. 20, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 21, at 3 p.m.

Where: The PAC Theatre in the Ability Plus School, 333 S. Prospect St., Orange.

Whereabouts: Costa Mesa Freeway to Katella Avenue exit. Take Katella, going east to Chapman Avenue. Theater is one block south of Chapman on Prospect.

Wherewithal: $6 to $10.

Where To Call: (714) 667-3163.

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