Today’s Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted to out-of-town productions of a pair of infrequently revived shows, William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life and Stephen Sondheim’s musical version of Merrily We Roll Along:
Few artists have been done dirtier by posterity than William Saroyan. For a time he was one of America’s best-known writers, and “The Time of Your Life,” his most successful play, won a Pulitzer in 1940. But then America fell out of love with Saroyan, and he had lapsed into half-remembered obscurity long before his death in 1981. Not even “The Time of Your Life” has held the stage, and when the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, one of the best companies in the New York area, announced a revival, I was eager to see what they would do with a play so completely out of favor. The good news is that it has turned out to be far more theatrically potent than I could possibly have imagined.
On paper there’s nothing much to “The Time of Your Life,” which is set in a seedy San Francisco bar just after the start of World War II. Joe (Andrew Weems) sits and guzzles champagne as a string of variously eccentric drinkers come and go. At play’s end he rouses himself from his sozzled torpor, does a good turn for an unhappy whore (Sofia Jean Gomez), and returns at last to the world he had renounced. That’s all there is to it, really–except for the goofy good humor with which Saroyan portrays the patrons of Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon. From Harry (Blake Hackler), the hapless hoofer who longs to be a comedian but is utterly unfunny, to Kit Carson (Edmond Genest), a half-senile old man who claims to have been a sharpshooting pioneer, Saroyan fills the stage with characters whose cockeyed charm wins you over….
Like the 1934 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play on which it is based, “Merrily We Roll Along” runs in reverse: It starts in the present, showing us the hollow triumph of a songwriter who gave up music to become a Hollywood producer, then turns back the clock so that we can watch him selling out by installments. The score is one of Mr. Sondheim’s strongest, but the show’s unrelieved pessimism and structural trickery turned off Broadway audiences, and the original 1980 production closed after just 16 performances.
Fortunately, Mr. Sondheim and George Furth (who had previously collaborated on “Company”) kept on tinkering with “Merrily.” In time they came up with a much-altered version meant to make us care about the fate of Franklin Shepard (Will Gartshore), the Sondheim-like songwriter who, unlike his creator, betrays his art (and friends and lovers) by jettisoning his idealism and going for the gold. In this revised, slimmed-down version, the show’s ironic arc–it begins in bitter disillusion and moves “forward” to a happy “ending” full of youthful hope for the future–now makes dramatic and emotional sense.
Eric Schaeffer, who as artistic director of Signature Theatre has earned a well-deserved national reputation for his Sondheim stagings, has opted this time for a bare-bones production similar in feel to a semi-staged concert version. It is, alas, too obviously based on John Doyle’s recent Broadway revival of “Company,” right down to the big black piano at center stage…
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