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Quirky American Sampler : A colorful palette of characters populates a Saroyan play touching on the freedom to be oneself.

July 16, 1993|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes about theater for Valley Life

Everything old is new again at Group Repertory Theatre, where a revival of William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life"--which the North Hollywood company originally staged in 1981--opens tonight.

"Ostensibly, the play deals with a bunch of characters who come together in a San Francisco wharf saloon in 1939, say their piece and leave," says director Bert Rosario. "But I don't think that's what it's about. This is before World War II--and Saroyan is demonstrating how wonderful America is: It gives the freedom to permit quirky people to exist without losing that freedom."

Twenty-three actors play as many roles, providing a colorful palette of characters: There's bar linchpin Joe (Group Rep artistic director Lonny Chapman, reprising his 1981 role), and the boy Tom who does his bidding; Willie, the Assyrian pinball wizard; prostitute Kitty; owner Nick; a man named Wesley, who comes in and plays great piano; a philosophical longshoreman named McCarthy, and a society couple there to check out the lower classes.

"There's also a drunk who keeps coming in, and Nick keeps throwing him out," says Rosario, who played Willie in the '81 staging. "A newspaper boy singing 'Irish Eyes.' And Harriet, who describes herself as a comedian, but isn't funny."

When the director played Willie, he adds, "I could identify with the feeling of having to fit in and wanting people to accept me for who I was, not what I was. Saroyan is showing that everyone is successful in his own way."

Larry Eisenberg plays a character referred to as "Kit Carson," who captivates the bar patrons with his storytelling.

"His stories conjure up adventurous times, romantic times, the power of dreaming, of tall tales," says the actor, who was last seen telling tales in "Isaac Bashevis Singer's 'Stories for Children' " at the West End Playhouse. "You never know if his stories are true or not. Maybe he did herd cattle on a bicycle. Maybe he did fall in love with a 39-pound midget."

The Bronx-born director was drafted in 1965 and spent a year in Vietnam. "When I came back I decided to do what I wanted to do with my life, not what my family wanted or the practical thing," he says. He followed studies at Pierce College and San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State Northridge) with a master of fine arts degree from the University of Minnesota, and worked off and on for five years at the prestigious Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. In 1976, he moved to Los Angeles.

A 16-year member of Group Rep--he joined the company "because it was close to where I was living at the time, and I needed a constant tie to the theater"--Rosario acknowledges a longstanding affection for this piece. "Underlying what the play is about is a celebration of life," he says. "Saroyan infuses that in all of his plays. His work reeks of loving people, especially people bent on living their lives fully."

Where and When What: "The Time of Your Life." Location: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 7 p.m. Sundays. Closes Aug. 22. Price: $8 to $10. Call: (818) 769-PLAY.

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