Once in a Lifetime

Sarah-Goeden-Justine-C-Turner-Nicole-BloomsmithBy George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

Directed by Damon Kiely

Produced by Strawdog Theatre Company

Strawdog Exits Laughing

Strawdog will be moving next season to a new location at 1621 West Howard Street, but for now, it’s the end of an era at their Lakeview home for twenty-six years. They picked a great way to go out, though. Though the names George Kaufman and Moss Hart are today associated most strongly with You Can’t Take it With You, a beloved, but dated and overexposed, comedy, their first collaboration, Once in a Lifetime, has a lot more satirical bite. Written in 1930, the story centers on the movie industry, one of the few financially promising fields at the time (or so many people hoped), and director Damon Kiely has found all sorts of delightful ways of bringing out the script’s humor, while making it compatible with modern tastes. It’s the perfect fusion of old and new for a long-running company undergoing a major transition.

Jerry (Michael Dailey), George (Scott Danielson) and Mary (Kat McDonnell). Photos by Tom McGrath of TCMCG Photography.

Our story begins in New York, where a trio of vaudevillians have fallen on hard times. Jerry Hyland (Michael Dailey) is the guy with the big ideas, Mary Daniels (Kat McDonnell) handles the details and implements them, and George Lewis (Scott Danielson) used to handle bookings, but is still hanging around only because the others haven’t figured out how useless he is, yet. While at one of the new talkie pictures, Jerry realizes that the real money is in the film industry, and he and Mary scheme to open an elocution clinic for all the surely panicking actors. (It’s a bit like Singin’ in the Rain, but with semi-lovable rogues.) As they head west, they bluff their way into the upper echelons of the studio, with George’s instinctually honest belief in their own nonsense proving to be a great asset. But they find that while it’s easy to lie their way into being accepted as experts, it’s harder to maintain success in an industry where it seems like everybody is totally incompetent and lying all the time.

Ensemble members Paul Fagen, Nicole Bloomsmith, Brandon Saunders, Justine C. Turner, and Sarah Goeden

Kiely has directed his actors to speak and move in an old-fashioned style seen in black-and-white films, to hilarious effect. It’s not overdone, but it’s necessary for the period’s dialogue, and provides the satirical world with the necessary comic exaggeration. McDonnell is particularly amusing, as Mary lies with such brazenness it’s impossible not to admire her. Kiely, music director Auston Oie, and sound designer Heath Hays have also arranged several contemporary pop songs in the style of the thirties, some of which are performed live by an energetic, charming cast, others of which are played during two brief intermissions which provide audiences with a chance to catch their breath, instead of grinding the loosely plotted show to a halt. Kaufman and Hart’s humor is kept lively through sharp comedic skills around, but other particularly noteworthy performances are that of Danielson, whose George belongs in the dictionary next to “gormless,” and Justine C. Turner, whose movie critic Helen Hobart is McDonnell’s Mary’s match in self-aggrandizing bs, with even less perspective.

Florabel (Michaela Petro), Kammerling (Brandon Saunders), Glogauer (Jamie Vann), George (Scott Danielson), Mary (Kat McDonnell), and Jerry (Michael Dailey)

Kaufman and Hart took a lot of shots at the movie industry, most of which remain just as valid today. (Late in the play, the response in the screening room to the first cut of a film George produced is like something from a Mr. Plinkett review.) But they also went after theatre nearly as much, depicting hordes of dim-witted actors, the “instructors” who prey on them, and one long-and-somewhat-deservedly-suffering wreck of a playwright. The final scene is a very meta good-bye from Strawdog to its home, but it’s delivered with such joy, and by displaying such talent, that watching it provides reassurance that the company still has a bright future ahead of it. It’s a bit unusual for Strawdog to mount a comedy, but they did so here to great success. Once in a Lifetime is easily one of the funniest plays of the season.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis

[email protected]

Reviewed May 2, 2016

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see Once in a Lifetime’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N Broadway St, Chicago. Tickets are $28-30; to order, call 866-811-4111 or visit Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 4:00 pm through June 4. Running time is two hours and five minutes with two intermissions.