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THEATER REVIEW : Uneven Cast Drags Down Dated 'Life'

May 01, 1993|RICHARD STAYTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sometimes benefit productions can backfire.

Case in point: the revival at the Pasadena Playhouse of William Saroyan's sentimental, garrulous, plodding, five-act, 24-character, 1939 honky-tonk sermon "The Time of Your Life."

Billed as "an Actors' Equity Assn. sanctioned benefit engagement" for the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatre Arts, its good intentions are undermined by egalitarian casting of professionals and students. The more experienced stage performers--including Terrence Beasor, Henry Capps, Jill Maina Capps, David Crandell, Cliff Emmich and Morgan Stock (whose Pasadena mainstage debut was 53 years ago)--gracefully merge into an ensemble of Saroyan's misfits and barflies.

But their experience can't compensate for the Playhouse workshop novices who apparently are lost without cameras and microphones. On the vast Pasadena mainstage, the difference between generations of actors is graphically demonstrated. The stage-savvy pros, trained to listen, overwhelm the media-saturated youngsters, conditioned to look. For example, the evening's only memorable exchange is a gum-chewing sight-gag: Two actors, their mouths stuffed with Juicy Fruit, argue incoherently.

The good news is they don't make plays like "The Time of Your Life" anymore, and for reasons more obvious than its mammoth cast. In 1939 America, to be "politically correct" meant left-of-center. Sex was AIDS-free and cost two bucks. Liquor lacked Alcoholics Anonymous prohibitions and drunks were amusing philosophers.

Saroyan's stereotypes include "a $2 whore" with a heart of gold, "an intelligent and well-read longshoreman," "a marble-game maniac" and "a colored boy who plays a mean and melancholy boogie-woogie piano." Guilt-free, his boozers cheerfully describe a woman as "a big Negress" and happiness as "the Amos 'n' Andy radio show." They weep after a paperboy sings "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." They stand to salute after the national anthem and American flags erupt from a pin-ball machine's jackpot.

When Saroyan refused the Pulitzer Prize for "The Time of Your Life," perhaps he knew more than the Pasadena Playhouse suspected.

"The Time of Your Life," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Today 3:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $20. (818) 985-7213. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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