So this cop, this pinball wizard and this guy named Kit Carson walk into a bar -- as do a newsboy, a nurse, a longshoreman, a would-be vaudevillian, an Arab harmonica player and . . . Well, suffice it to say that William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life," set in a 1939 San Francisco saloon, is not one of those intimate two- or three-character plays that help theater companies keep budgets low and curtain calls short. This rambling, bittersweet classic is meant to conjure up a restless panorama of American life, and that's certainly accomplished in the American Century Theater's energetic and mostly entertaining production, which opens the company's 10th season.
With a couple of exceptions the acting of the 19-member cast leaves something to be desired, but Terry D. Kester's judicious direction creates fluctuating moods and rhythms that make the play a wry, profound and sometimes funny reflection of life in this country, and maybe life in general.
It doesn't hurt that, in order to get to your seat, you have to stroll through Beth Baldwin's atmospheric set, a run-down barroom whose asymmetrical, yellowing walls are plastered with placards for Jack Daniel's and the like. Right from the start, in other words, you feel complicit in the dynamics of this waterfront dive, whose soulful proprietor, Nick, is already onstage tending bar. The establishment really comes into its own, however, when the play's opening lines introduce Joe, the benevolent and slightly mysterious boozer who aspires to live "a life that can't hurt any other life." Joe provides what center there is to Saroyan's pretty diffuse script, and fortunately, he's incarnated here by Bruce Alan Rauscher, whose assured stage presence -- and ability to be intense, flirtatious, impatient and capricious by turns -- anchors the production.
Into Joe's orbit Saroyan swings an array of eccentric figures, portrayed with varying degrees of persuasiveness by the cast. Dan Murphy is delightfully villainous as the policeman, Blick, stalking thuggishly onstage and glaring at the customers while chewing casually on a toothpick. As Joe's simple-minded sidekick, Tom, Timothy Andres Pabon hits an adequate note of gangly sweetness, but Joe Cronin overdoes Nick's animated Mediterranean mannerisms, and Angela Lahl doesn't fully round out the character of the melancholy prostitute Kitty. In the role of the showbiz wannabe Harry, Evan Casey looks awkward, but then it can't be easy inheriting a singing and dancing part that was played by Gene Kelly in the play's 1939 premiere.
Set on the eve of World War II, "The Time of Your Life" resonates with a certain amount of social consciousness: Nick's customers pursue their varied obsessions against the backdrop of a strike on the waterfront (in Kester's staging, the strikers parade just behind the set, visible through the windows), and Joe's perusal of European maps hints at the impending global conflagration. In this production, though, it's the script's whimsy that comes off best. The pinball fixation of Willie (Brent Stansell) is marred by the noisiness of the game unit, whose clatter sometimes makes the dialogue hard to hear. But Kim-Scott Miller hams it up enjoyably as Kit Carson, an irrepressible narrator of incoherent tall tales, and the priceless gum-chewing competition between Joe and Tom underscores Joe's resolve to experience life fully. ("In the time of your life, live," Saroyan wrote in a preface to the play, further emphasizing the message.)
Most importantly, Kester gets his actors to shift between bits of stage business (pinball, etc.) and quiet listening, creating a convincing impression of a fidgety, erratic human landscape.
With its shortfall in virtuoso performances, the American Century version may not be the ideal staging of "The Time of Your Life." But the production does offer an encounter with a classic that's not produced too often -- a classic that yields a poignant portrait of what Saroyan called a "deep American naivete and faith in the behavior of each person."
The Time of Your Life, by William Saroyan. Directed by Terry D. Kester; scenic design, Beth Baldwin; costumes, Rip Claassen; light design, Thomas B. Kennedy; sound design, Bill Wisniewski. At the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-553-8782 or visit www.americancentury.org.