The Finborough Theatre has a good track record in digging up treasure. They like to stage plays that have fallen out of fashion or simply been forgotten. Sometimes they strike gold; sometimes not so much.
Written in 1939, William Saroyan’s sprawling barroom play has a lot going for it; it’s warm and engaging, if practically plot-less, and has an endearing faith in human goodness. It was a big hit in its day and won Saroyan the Pulitzer, but while there’s much about it of interest, Max Lewendel’s rather muddy production doesn’t do it many favours.
The Time Of Your Life is set in Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon, a San Francisco honky-tonk, a dive bar with an upright piano, a jukebox in the corner and Tiffany lamps on the tables.
Into this bar come a series of people, many of them liver-pickled and desperate. There are streetwalkers and drunks, a marble game addict, a teller of tall tales, a cop who’s dissatisfied with his job and a would-be comedian and dancer who is skilled at neither art.
Sitting calmly in the middle of this constant human stream is Joe, a man with deep pockets and a generous spirit. He no longer works, choosing instead to spend his days sipping champagne, getting amiably squiffy and studying the world and its vagaries. When his friend and errand boy, Tom, becomes infatuated with a troubled prostitute, Joe does what he can to help them.
In its focus on people on the margins, the play has much in common with other more familiar names of American drama, with Eugene O’Neill and his ilk. There’s a touch of John Fante in there too, I think. But while the play contains mess and desperation in abundance, there’s also hope and a sense of optimism untainted by the coming war in Europe.
Lewendel’s production, however, seems uneasy with the play’s loose, episodic structure; with no real story arc to speak of, the production falters when it should free-flow. It only really hits its rhythm in the shorter second half, aided by a lengthy and very funny, if a little icky, scene where Joe and Tom compete to see how much chewing gum they can each fit in their mouths.
For this production, the Finborough seating as been rejigged to create a suitable barroom feel. Instead of the usual benches, many audience members perch on bar stools; the cast sometimes choose to acknowledge the audience, sometimes not. The cast, it should be pointed out, is vast: easily numbering over twenty. They’ve crammed in so many people that it feels as if, even at full capacity, the audience-cast ratio would be something like 2:1.
Among this number there are some strong performances: while there’s something appealingly oddball about Alistair Cumming’s Joe, those in some of the smaller roles leave the deepest impressions, particularly Payman Jaberi as a sad-eyed Arab man who says little but says it with weight and Emma Vane as the melancholy lady who catches Joe’s eye. Elsewhere accents waver alarmingly and there’s a fair bit of acting that’s rather too ‘big’ for the space.
Saroyan’s play is certainly intriguing and some of that comes through here. But this over-crowded production never quite gets to grips with its idiosyncrasies, never quite milks the richness from the material.
Reviewed for musicOMH