Many top playwrights and novelists have been low men on the totem pole of Hollywood's movie industry, but some have managed a certain vengeance by writing a stage play about the insanity of Tinseltown.
George Kaufman did it twice, first with "Merton of the Movies" in the 1920s, and later teaming with first-time playwright Moss Hart for "Once in a Lifetime," a big hit on Broadway in 1930.
Director Donn Finn's staging at Cal State Fullerton's Arena Theatre gives ample evidence why. It's bright, very funny and points out the waste of talent that Hollywood is famous for.
There is befuddled and rather opaque George Lewis. He and his smarter vaudeville partner Jerry Hyland and the even smarter third troupe member May Daniels are at a career low, playing tank towns and whistle-stops. Suddenly, Al Jolson and Warner Bros. score a big hit with a sound movie. They have a great idea: Take their few remaining bucks and go to Hollywood and show them how to talk.
The situations and characters that follow are pretty standard: Herman Glogauer, the borderline imbecile studio magnate who takes them under his wing; self-serving Hollywood columnist Helen Hobart; distracted playwright Lawrence Vail, who has been isolated in a cell in the writers' wing for six months with nothing to do. There are stars with grating voices and junior executives who run amok like berserk bellboys.
Finn not only catches the flavor of the period, he usually captures the spark of Kaufman and Hart's first classic collaboration. Tempos are super brisk; punch lines are not punched but come across with ease. And when the action demands sentiment, it's there in good measure.
The three leading roles are played with finesse, charm and crackling humor. In dumb George, who takes over the studio, Kevin Beaty gives an insightful portrait of a too-familiar Hollywood type, played with laid-back simplicity and honesty. Jason Buuck is charming as Hyland, smooth and full of character detail.
Shining even more brightly is Aimee Guichard as May Daniels, who gives a crisp delivery, rich in subtext that creates a fine comedy portrait. Their reserve and the reality of their characterizations are what make comedy work.
That same reserve and subtext works wonders for Matt Sullivan's playwright Vail, and for Melissa Deppe's small role as a cigarette girl and actress. Scott Nabb's blustering Glogauer, and Seth Alcorn's egotistic German director Kammerling are played large, but both actors pull back just before going overboard, to funny effect.
Some supporting cast members aren't as lucky. Finn hasn't pulled them back when they lower Kaufman and Hart's camp from character to caricature. Laura Hart's columnist Hobart, Danika Eger's stupid ingenue Susan Walker, and Svetlana Reed as her mother, overplay their lines, getting laughs but losing the wit.
Even in the smallest roles, excess can destroy the basic fun of the piece. Kaufman and Hart hint slyly about this, too, in "Lifetime," because excess is also a Hollywood thing.
"Once in a Lifetime," Arena Theatre, Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends Oct. 17. $8. (714) 278-3371. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.
Kevin Beaty: George Lewis
Aimee Guichard: May Daniels
Jason Buuck: Jerry Hyland
Laura Hart: Helen Hobart
Danika Eger: Susan Walker
Melissa Deppe: Cigarette Girl
Svetlana Reed: Mrs. Walker
Scott Nabb: Herman Glogauer
Seth Alcorn: Rudolph Kammerling
A Cal State Fullerton Department of Theatre and Dance production of the George Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy. Director: Donn Finn. Scenic design: Ann Sheffield. Lighting design: Dan Volonte. Costume design: Bruce Goodrich. Makeup/hair design: Alyson Harlan. Sound/video design: Patrick Johnson. Stage manager: Brandie L. Peck.