The Time of Your Life
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 6, 2008
Looking for some wisdom for these distressing days? Sample this:
We're crazy, that's why. We're no good any more. All the corruption everywhere. The poor kids selling themselves. A couple of years ago they were in grammar school. Everybody trying to get a lot of money in a hurry. Everybody betting the horses. Nobody going quietly for a little walk to the ocean. Nobody taking things easy and not wanting to make some kind of a killing.
The speaker of these words is Krupp, an honest cop, one of the denizens of Nick's Pacific Street Saloon, at the end of the Embarcadero in San Francisco. The author is William Saroyan, and thanks to the Storm Theatre, New Yorkers have a rare opportunity to meet Krupp and his compatriots in this beautiful, resonant play. The Storm's artistic director, Peter Dobbins, has realized the play magnificently in a production that's filled with warmth, humor, and humanity. It unfolds on Todd Edward Ivins's miraculously detailed barroom set—there's a jukebox in one corner of the room, a piano on a pedestal nearby, and even a working pinball machine along the back wall. Here, some two dozen actors—dressed in period style by costumer Cheryl McCarron—bring Saroyan's cockeyed creations to life, abetted by evocative lighting and sound, courtesy of Michael Abrams and Scott O'Brien, respectively.
At 20 dollars a ticket, it's the best theatre bargain in New York.
Here are some of the remarkable ordinary people we meet at Nick's, in addition to Krupp the Cop. There's McCarthy, Krupp's lifelong friend, a longshoreman who ought to be a professor; Wesley, a young black man who needs a job and turns out to have a penchant for playing piano; Harry, a lost soul trying to find himself in comedy and hoofing; Dudley, a young man hovering around Nick's phone, praying that his girl Elsie will call; Willie, a young fellow determined to beat the pinball machine; and of course Nick himself, proprietor of this establishment that would be the end of the road for its inhabitants were it not for his own infectious and life-affirming hope.
There's also an older fellow who introduces himself as Murphy (though Nick dubs him "Kit Carson") and then regales anybody who will listen and/or stake him to another drink with a string of tall tales that remind us upon just what blend of guts, bluff, and good cheer our nation managed to build itself.
At the center of it all, omnipresent through most of the play, is Joe, a man with a lot of money and apparently nowhere else to be. During the course of The Time of Your Life, as the private wanderings and wonderings of the various barflies and visitors swirl about him, Joe engineers a romance between Tom, his rudderless but good-hearted errand-boy, and Kitty Duval, a whore who Joe knows deserves a better life, whether her heart is made of gold or some lesser metal.
There's also a troublemaker, the snitch/blackmailer Blick, who threatens more than once to erase the good spirits that somehow manage to pervade Nick's saloon: his raw, undisguised malevolence is the only real enemy to the unflagging optimism of Saroyan's other characters (neither the lingering Great Depression nor the looming war against the Nazis can knock these folks down, but pure cruelty against a fellow human is another thing).
I love these people and love the sometimes naive, sometimes rough-and-tumble, sometimes fantastical world that Saroyan puts them in. I love the way Dobbins and his company show us these characters' isolation and their inspiring joie-de-vivre (pausing, for example, to hear the local newsboy sing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"); and how they can all be brought up short, just for a minute, when the subject of money (and lack thereof) looms its ugly head. I love that Saroyan's individuals are not just preserved but celebrated here; this is a roomful of vibrant souls, not onerous archetypes.
I love best of all that Dobbins and the Storm have the grace and audacity to put on this show about standing up to life's harshness against the odds...against the odds. An indie theater production with a spectacular realistic set and a cast of 25 feels impossible just now, but here is The Time of Your Life, proving that theatre is always at its best when it's teaching us about possibilities.
You may favor different actors and characters depending upon your own personal proclivities; I am cherishing having spent time with Ken Trammell's Kit Carson and Josh Vasquez's Willie, both endlessly resilient though at different ends of straitened lives; Ted McGuinness's McCarthy and Joe Danbusky's Krupp, showing us the true wisdom of the working man; Matthew Wechsler's spunky newsboy; Daniela Mastropietro's innately elegant Kitty and Matthew DeCapua's blustery but good-hearted Tom; and Ross DeGraw's gruff but generous Nick. Dan Berkey is almost terrifying as the insidious Blick, while Michael Mendiola anchors the play as the fish-out-of-water Joe.
Dobbins has told me that he believes the play offers a microcosm of America, then (1939, when it was written) and now. Saroyan simply said, in a kind of introductory note to the published text, "In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it." With so much misery and sorrow available for the asking, I can only gently urge you to enjoy this respite from it: see Storm's Time of Your Life and remember again what theatre can do, and what people can do.