Chicago Theater Review: ONCE IN A LIFETIME (Strawdog Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 3, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

A CRASH COUSE IN ‘LA LA LAND’ LUNACY

Once in a Lifetime, the first triumph of George S Kaufman and Moss Hart (You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner, The Royal Family), is a mostly hilarious 1930 “coming of age” comedy. It centers on three Hollywood hopefuls who slam against the awesome mediocrity of Tinsel Town’s dream-makers. Screwball fluff, with zingers demanding stopwatch timing and a machine-gun delivery, this old-fashioned, three-act romp merrily chronicles the tell-all careers of ex-vaudevillians on the make and on their own. Eager-beaver fame-chasers, Jerry, George and May are bent on exploiting the fertile transition from silent movies to “talkies.” So they set up an elocution, diction and speech school for future marquee icons and matinee idols.

Michael Dailey, Scott Danielson, and Kat McDonnell in Strawdog's ONCE IN A LIFETIME. Photo by Tom McGrath.

As with the better known Singin’ in the Rain, Once in a Lifetime (a perfect title for this tribute to youth and stupidity) offers a breathlessly zany, contrivedly madcap take on an opportunistic bonanza: In 1929 the “industry” is in flux and the American dream offers a limited chance to come true. Sweetly staged by Damon Kiely, this is Strawdog Theatre Company’s final production in its Lakeview venue of 28 years. Returning the troupe to their roots, their revival appropriately captures the fresh fun of starting anew as thirteen actors play 40 cinematic stereotypes.

Michaela Petro, Brandon Saunders, Jamie Vann, Scott Danielson, Kat McDonnell, and Michael Dailey in Strawdog's ONCE IN A LIFETIME. Photo by Tom McGrath.

Thespian troupers Jerry, George and May hope to profit from California’s second gold rush. Getting a valuable endorsement from a Hedda Hopper-style tabloid columnist who they meet on the train west, they dig a niche at Glogauer Studios, a flicker factory specializing in empty spectacle and now gearing up for “talking pictures.” Standing in for Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, M.G.M. and United Artists, it’s where genius goes to die and talent is wasted to the max.

Scott Danielson and Kat McDonnell in Strawdog's ONCE IN A LIFETIME. Photo by Tom McGrath.This “fish out of water” formula juxtaposes hungry neophytes with seasoned sycophants. It also allows Kaufman and Hart, New York stagebound artistes, to spoof their natural enemies and exploiters, West Coast filmmakers. The 160-minute celluloid circus exposes a rogues’ gallery of glad-handed greedsters, airhead “wanna-bes,” pandering hangers-ons — so much colorful riff and silly raff.

When George, now “Dr. Lewis,” meets Susan Walker, a talentless actress from Ohio, she melts his open heart and fries his simple brain. This encourages him to chew out studio chief Herman Glogauer himself. The mogul is so impressed with George’s temerity that he appoints him project supervisor and gives Susan, Jerry, and May their first “shoot” at a feature film. Helmed by a Preminger-like German hack named Kammerling, their movie-making, a kind of makeshift mayhem, goes both very wrong and very right. (It’s just what you’d expect in this topsy-turvy world of surface, sheen and superficiality. Only in Hollywood could an idiot manager order 2,000 airplanes and still come out on top.)

Paul Fagen and Kat McDonnell in Strawdog's ONCE IN A LIFETIME. Photo by Tom McGrath.

Along the way there’s a running joke involving pathetic Lawrence Vail, a Gotham playwright going bonkers. This once fertile writer is losing it as, “underworked” and unrecognized, he remains all but invisible in the studio’s screenwriters wing, a place of no return. Delicious details like Vail’s anonymity make K & H’s familiar tale of L.A. disillusionment a tonic and a treat.

Paul Fagen, Nicole Bloomsmith, Brandon Saunders, Justine C. Turner, and Sarah Goeden in Strawdog's ONCE IN A LIFETIME. Photo by Tom McGrath.

Though musical interpolations by Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus add little depth and less melody, Kiely’s funhouse staging gives a sharp script a new glow. Kathleen McDonnell’s May cracks wise with her Rosalind Russell/Bea Arthur deadpan-dry delivery, Mike Dailey’s frenzied Jerry simpers and sputters at all the right crises, and Scott Danielson’s bird-brained George delivers the nicest fool of God since Dostoevsky’s Prince Mishkin.

Sarah Goeden, Justine C Turner, Nicole Bloomsmith in Strawdog's ONCE IN A LIFETIME. Photo by Tom McGrath.

The support, which features a couple of fake Pomeranians, reinvents a retinue of La La Land loonies — Justine C. Turner’s oily gossip-writer, Nicole Bloomsmith’s vacuous studio secretary, Jamie Vann’s bumptious Glogauer, Brandon Saunders’ temperamentally Teutonic director, Paul Vagen’s hapless screen scribe, and Anderson Lawfer and Michaelo Petro as a very mixed pair of self-appointed starlets.

Scott Danielson, Kat McDonnell, and Michael Dailey in Strawdog's ONCE IN A LIFETIME. Photo by Tom McGrath.

Richly illustrated by Joe Schermoly’s flying sets and Brittany Dee Bodley and Cassandra Bass’s skewering costumes, it’s a fitting swan song and farewell performance for Strawdog’s longtime home. Going condo, their three-decade dream factory will soon be far away and long ago, just like Kaufman and Hart’s love/hate tribute to the Golden State’s silver screens.

photos by Tom McGrath of TCMCGPhotography.com
poster photo by Jon Cole Media

Once in a Lifetime
Strawdog Theatre Company
3829 N. Broadway St
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 4
ends on June 4, 2016 EXTENDED to June 10, 2016
for tickets, call 866.811.4111 or visit Strawdog

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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