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The Time of Your Life: Broadway Theatre Archive

When William Saroyan refused to accept the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for The Time of Your Life, he said that art could not be patronized by wealth. Saroyan was an idealist. So it's no surprise that this Armenian-American playwright-novelist-essayist peopled his works with characters who personified their creator's idealism. Set in 1939 at a San Francisco waterfront honky-tonk ("the lousiest dive in Frisco," as its owner/bartender, Nick, describes it), this plaintive comic ode to the important nobodies doesn't unfold as a single dramatic story. Rather, it offers connected peeks into the personal stories of a dozen wistful dreamers, pining lonelyhearts, and beerhall philosophers who all just happen to be in the same place at the same time. (Saroyan's overlapping tapestry pieces influenced later generations of storytellers, with Robert Altman arguably the most familiar of the playwright's progeny.) As a microcosm of America facing another impending world war, The Time of Your Life personifies sentiments close to Saroyan's heart — optimism, sentiment, the power of hope, love of country, compassion for those weaker than ourselves, and the value of a life lived fully, even if that life never approaches society's standards for success. Appealing stuff to audiences beaten down by the Great Depression. However, beneath the optimism stirs a poignancy, a melancholy that artfully raises The Time of Your Life away from mere naïve sentimentality by buttressing it with earned world-weariness.

The centerpoint character is Joe (Nicholas Surovy), a mysterious yet magnanimous man of intelligence and wealth who embraces life's simple pleasures and the simple people who need them. He can afford to be anywhere other than this seedy bar, but he has long since made the honky-tonk his home. The champagne that crusty, soft-hearted Nick (Benjamin Hendrickson) acquires for him lubricates Joe's benignly cynical musings, and he becomes a catalyst for change in more than one life that intersects his own. For three years Joe's companion and errand-runner has been Tom (Norman Snow). Loyal but simple, Tom begins to break away from his Joe-centric orbit when he experiences love at first sight. The gal who catches his eye is Kitty Duval (Patti LuPone), a "two-dollar whore" who espouses dreams of a bucolic life and a career as a burlesque star. Other lost souls entering Nick's world-in-a-barroom include a lovelorn man half-heartedly threatening to kill himself if his girl won't marry him, a boozy old coot with a past that's made up as he goes along, a longshoreman with the soul of a poet (Kevin Kline), slumming society swells, a wanna-be comedian practically inventing the "no soap, radio" brand of humor, and a vice cop who forces his cruelty with extra viciousness upon Kitty.

Everyone's a philosopher and everyone has a heartfelt speech to make, but somehow it all works. Saroyan's prose-poetry language (of course people don't really talk this way) and evocation of Capra-esque sentiment may remind modern viewers of the works of Ray Bradbury. In fact, the play's first critics scoffed at its idealism and dismissed it as escapist entertainment. But enough critics soon began to appreciate its optimism and honest examination of American life and the dreams of its citizens, leading the play to the Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer. In a voice-over prologue spoken in this production by Saroyan himself, the author tells us that in the time of our life we should "have no shame in being kindly and gentle, but if the time comes to kill, kill and have no regret" — and indeed, someone takes two slugs from a revolver before the final curtain. He admonishes us to "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." It's this joie de vivre in the face of adversity and mundanity that celebrates the common people and their ability to triumph over poverty and disillusionment through love and fantasy. So Saroyan's San Francisco bar is the bittersweet counterpoint to O'Neill's death-shadowed, fantasy-deprived saloon of The Iceman Cometh.

The Time of Your Life was first staged in 1939, and later inspired a mediocre movie starring Jimmy Cagney. The stage revival preserved on this disc began during the 1975 repertory season of New York's The Acting Company, a performance troupe co-founded by John Houseman. Directed by Jack O'Brien, that stage version was masterfully adapted in '76 for PBS's Great Performances by director Kirk Browning, who built a career out of bringing theatrical productions to television without tromping over an original director's vision and by respecting the essential theatricality of a live stage production. It's that Great Performances broadcast we find offered here. Pointing out individual performances in an ensemble cast risks diminishing the ensemble, but special attention can be paid to three actors here. The first is Nicholas Surovy's sensitively nuanced Joe, whose off-kilter bead on the world around him may be a peculiarly beneficent form of insanity. The second is Patti LuPone's turn, in her first appearance on television, as dream-worn and vulnerable Kitty. A third is David Schramm as "Kit Carson," the old coot whose fantasies ultimately connect with a murder the cops refuse to investigate too closely. Kevin Kline is winning in his one scene as McCarthy the longshoreman, a small part of a solid cast sharing uniformly good work here.

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This Broadway Theatre Archive DVD serves up a transfer that's surprisingly clean, sharp, and colorful for a 1976 television print. (Chapter 14 bears two quick instances of digital skip, and early on there's a two-second color dropout, all on the master and forgivable.) The audio comes in center-channel mono, but you could hardly ask for clearer, stronger sound given that limitation. The Broadway Theatre Archive delivers good product, and The Time of Your Life is right up there with its shelfmates thanks to fine visuals and sound, well-designed menus, a hefty selection of previews for other BTA titles, lengthy stage/film listings for LuPone and Kline (only them, unfortunately), an informative slipsheet on Saroyan, and a series-matching keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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