(November 14, 2008)

You’ll Have “The Time of Your Life”

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

The worst thing about great theater is the best thing about great theater: What’s here for a moment — the way a smile crosses a woman’s lips, the gleam in a man’s eye — is gone before you know it.

That ephemeral nature is what brings people out to live theater, and it’s why, having only recently discovered the wonder that is the Purchase Repertory Company, I vow not to miss another show there.

Take William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life,” performed by the Senior Acting company, through tomorrow in the black box theater at the Purchase Performing Arts Center.

If Harry Hope’s seedy New York bar from Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” had a sunny, California cousin, it’d be Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon, hard under the Bay Bridge but as replete with the milk of human kindness as Hope’s is devoid of it.

Tiffany Dalian’s exquisite scenic design is the perfect canvas onto which director Benard Cummings and an able band of actors paint Saroyan’s story. Dalian has fully realized a well-worn San Francisco watering hole, a waterfront dive, with a phone booth, a bar, a jukebox, a pinball machine and a piano. It is a study in browns — with burlap walls that provide a glimpse of the world outside.

Lighting designer Derek Heckler lets the entering audience first encounter Nick’s in repose, a study in shadows. Even when the lights come up full, Heckler doesn’t seem to overuse the wattage, bathing the bar in a tempting warm glow. I’d certainly drink there: Nick seems to be a generous pourer.

Sue Monroe’s costumes evoke the play’s 1939 setting, with suits, tuxedos and working clothes for the men, finery and everyday dresses for the ladies, and tatters for the drunkard. The women’s hairstyles fit the time.

All of the creative departments have delivered on the piece’s promise, but once the lights come up and we begin to meet the denizens of Nick’s, all of that falls away and the acting is front and center.

We meet Joe, a champagne-drinking fellow, played by Carter Hudson, who buys all the news-hawker’s papers, only to glance at each one and hurl each one to the floor.

We learn that Joe has money when no one else does, but Joe’s still one of us: He fights demons, just not the ones everyone else is fighting. Hudson, who looks like a young Sen. John Kerry, is instantly likable, and not just because he’s buying the drinks. Hudson has the confidence to know that sometimes acting means standing there and not saying anything. He’s comfortable in his skin and, it turns out, in Joe’s, too. There’s a dreaminess to Hudson’s portrayal that fits Joe perfectly.

As Nick, the saloon’s proprietor and bartender, Hunter Canning captures a straight-talking man of business who can still see his way clear to help the other guy up. If he’s a bit gruff at first blush, it’s just an act. He’s a soft-touch, because times are tough. Still, there are things that rub Nick the wrong way — like injustice in general and pushy cops in particular — and Canning fairly explodes in a rage at the drop of a hat. In Canning’s capable hands, Nick is fully formed, a wondrous mix of weariness, outrage, pride, tenderness and laughter. It’s a portrayal I won’t soon forget in a role a lesser actor might have mailed in.

LaToya Lewis plays Kitty Duval, the homesick hooker with big dreams. This is another challenging role, requiring an actress who can combine the detachment of a woman who’s stuck in a life she hates with a deep-seated anger and resentment. But Kitty has a softer side, too, and Lewis finds every facet. When she hurts, we know it and we feel it.

Craig Pearson Strube’s Tom – a lovable hulk of a man whose innocence is endearing – falls for the wounded Kitty. Strube’s focus never flags: He’s always Tom, always childlike, always fun to watch.

Glenna Grant is winsome and charming as Mary L., a woman who finds her way into Joe’s heart, however briefly.

Cummings peoples the stage with Saroyan’s other quirky characters: Buddy Pease as the volcanic Willie; Chris Devlin as the fickle lover Dudley; Andy Bean as the rubbery and lovably bad comedian; Renee Williams as the Arab of few (but important) words; and Taylor Flowers as the rough-hewn Kit Carson, with a story ever at the ready.

The director has a fine eye for detail and the pace is spot on, sometimes slowing to a crawl, other times bolting forward.

Sean Willkens, as Wesley, adds tremendously to the proceedings at the piano, providing subtle underscoring to the action that makes the evening seem cinematic.

Nick’s pulses with the good spiritedness of the Vanderhof household in Kaufman & Hart’s “You Can’t Take It With You.” It’s hard to know where to look, but wherever your eye rests, you’ll be entertained.

The regulars don’t saunter into Nick’s; they explode into the joint.

Why do people come?

“Maybe it’s the liquor,” Nick says. “Maybe it’s the location. Maybe it’s my personality.”

If they come for Nick, they stay for Joe, whose dynamism and sense of wonder keeps the crowd rapt. He fills his drinking table with toys, with chewing gum, with jelly beans. He holds court and people listen.

“I just live all the time,” he tells a girl who happens in. “And then I sleep.”

Rather than staging a curtain call with bows, Cummings ends the show with a final tableau. As your eye goes from one smiling face to the next, you’ll realize that in just about three hours, you’ve learned something about each of these people. And you’re richer for the experience.

What’s the point of waiting for things to happen, Joe wonders, when there’s life to be lived?

Don’t wait. There are just three remaining performances of “The Time of Your Life” — tonight at 8, with a talkback following, and tomorrow at 2 and 8.

After that, it’ll be gone.

But the memories will linger.

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