William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life" is a warm-hearted, whimsical play leavened by dollops of melodrama, singing, dancing and bluesy riffs at the ivories. The Olney Theater's production has a few rough edges, but it's in the right spirit, with humanity to spare.
That's not just opinion, it's fact, because there are 26 (count 'em!) people in the cast, including drunkards, sailors, stevedores, hookers, dandies, cads, housewives and cops, all of whom converge on Nick's Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant and Entertainment Palace on the San Francisco waterfront, one day in 1939.
The Olney and its director, James D. Waring, are offering a sprawling and pleasantly meandering piece of work: a picaresque, picturesque journey through the American landscape, over one tall drink after another. You may stagger away slightly woozy, but there'll be a nice buzz between your ears.
The late Saroyan, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this work, gives us rich texture and colorful characters instead of well-honed structure. The conflict is between the crazed but comfortable society of Nick's and the harsh real world: striking dockworkers tussling with cops; a villainous vice officer who plays the bully; and, in another land, yet ominously near, Adolf Hitler. The leisurely pace of the play is deceptive; it's a rare moment on stage when only one thing is happening.
While Nick gruffly tends bar and Joe holds court -- and his liquor -- at the center table, the "Missouri Waltz" might be blaring from the Wurlitzer jukebox, or Wesley might be cooking at the piano to accompany dancing Harry.
Bellied up to the bar, a dour-faced fellow in a fez shouts into his beer, "No foundation! all the way down the line!"; couples have serious talks; a drunk careens between chairs; a newsboy delivers the latest Examiner; a wild-maned geezer spins deranged tall tales -- and all the while Willie plays his endless pinball.
It's a welcome wonder that the show doesn't come apart. Henry Strozier as Joe, who drinks people in with the same gusto he brings to champagne-guzzling, is doing much to hold things together. He's everyone's wise man but as vulnerable as a child; he's also the wild romantic who always knows the score -- which is maybe why he drinks. Strozier, lounging languorously at his table for most of the play, is bringing sad charm and bittersweet joy to the role.
The cast is uneven, but not enough to distract, and there are serveral notable performances. Richard Bauer, as the story-teller ("Did you ever herd cattle with a bicycle?"), manages to suggest both nuttiness and the possibility that his crazed, disjointed yarns might actually be true. Brigid Cleary makes a brief but memorable appearance as a young housewife in search of adventure, ensconced appealingly at the next table to flirt with Joe. And Jesse Forman's risk-taking, tumble-down dancing recalls the great James Cagney. THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE -- At the Olney Theater through September 18.