It has taken most of the summer to get matters in hand, but Olney Theatre's final production of the season, William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life," is the kind of pleasing, large-cast revival that used to be a staple of the Maryland playhouse.
Oh, a few apologies could be made for some of the supernumeraries. However, the leads in this whimsical canvas of passing life in a San Francisco honky-tonk are solidly acted. And at least one of them, Richard Bauer as a garrulous old coot left over from the frontier days, is worth a couple of gold nuggets.
The play has always been a bit shapeless in keeping with Saroyan's belief that the only viable credo is to live, let live, enjoy what you can and try not to step on anyone's dreams. It's the flip side, if you will, of O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," an oddly gentle comedy that grants the little people of the world the solace of their unlikely ambitions.
Just off-stage, the longshoremen are striking; the vice squad is cracking the whip and a few bones; and across the ocean, a fanatic named Hitler has begun to bully Europe. But inside Nick's bar, a generous cross section of eccentrics and misfits manages to dwell in a climate of benevolent tolerance. Saroyan rightly assumes that getting to know this colorful clientele is reason enough for his play, and while he introduces a vicious cop periodically to generate some suspense, the evening's action consists mainly of humanity's unending search for a willing ear, a reassuring hand and maybe a free drink.
So they come and go. In the process, Harry (the splendidly eager Jesse Foreman), a "natural-born dancer" and comic whose dancing is maniacal and whose monologues are patently unfunny, gets his first professional job. Kitty Duvall (the gravely beautiful Marcia Gay Harden), pretending to be a burlesque queen when she's merely a $2 hooker, finds a man to take care of her. Even if he's the slightly dimwitted Tom (Jim Beard), his heart is made of sugarplums. As whose isn't in this waterfront Eden?
There's an Armenian teen-ager (Steve Brady), who feeds an endless stream of nickels into the pinball machine, until it finally pays off in a jackpot of clanging bells and waving American flags; a longshoreman (Kelley Dempsey) who should have been a philosopher; a policeman (Paul Morella) who should have been a nursery school crossing guard; a bum (Daryl Davis) who wanders off the street and turns out to be a jazz pianist; and an Arab (Paul W. Silverio), whose recurring observation, "No foundation all down the line," echoes Saroyan's view of the perilous flux in the universe.
Sitting at the center table, eying them all with brotherly love, induced partially by the champagne he consumes by the bottle, partially by his own sweetly woozy nature, is Joe (Henry Strozier). Once he made a fortune, and now he's repenting for the apparent ruthlessness of his capitalistic past by putting the world to rights, or at least that portion of it that finds its way into Nick's. Joe gets to spout most of Saroyan's philosophy, some of it frankly maudlin by today's cynical yardstick. But Strozier manages to take the sanctimonious edge off the part by making Joe a silly man, as well as a wise one.
In the ideal production, of course, Saroyan's lovable crazies are as much a part of Nick's as the tattered streamers. As Nick (Dion Anderson) shrugs, "Maybe they can't feel at home anyplace else." That's not quite the case at Olney, where the feel of a tiny world unto itself is periodically ruptured by a lesser performance or three. But director James D. Waring has staged large patches of the play with warmth, and he trusts Saroyan's meandering ways to pay off in the end. They do.
Bauer delivers the gusto, when it's needed, as scraggly Kit Carson, a yarn-spinner from way back, whose opening query, "I don't suppose you ever fell in love with a 39 pound midget," sets the tone for the tall tales he spits out between swills of beer. It's one of those outrageous character parts that tap the best of Bauer's distinctive idiosyncracies. Foreman follows him a close second, as the would-be hoofer who would probably dance on the ceiling, if Nick didn't cast him a chastening glance. Harden's Kitty Duvall gets a mite heavy on occasion, although her honesty is unquestionable. Still, she should probably lighten up, if we're to believe her salvation in the arms of the dimwit, who's going to put her in the front seat of a truck and take her away from her life of shame.
Despite minor lapses here and there, Olney has tapped into the spirit of Saroyan's cockamamie universe. Mankind may be a crazed species, but there are lunatics and there are lunatics. For those in "The Time of Your Life," the challenge of existence is not the scramble to land on top. It's striking up a conversation with a perfect stranger. Tap dancing your heart out. Or stuffing as many pieces of chewing gum into your mouth as you can, because, well, it's something you always wanted to do.
This production delivers the message.
THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE. By William Saroyan. Directed by James D. Waring. Scenery and lighting, James D. Waring; costumes, Harriet L. Weil. With Henry Strozier, Richard Bauer, Jim Beard, Dion Anderson, Marcia Gay Harden, Brigid Cleary, Jesse Foreman, Daryl Davis, Paul W. Silverio, Bill Graham Jr. At Olney Theatre through Sept. 18.