"Once in a Lifetime?" Let's hope so

The world of old Hollywood has become an endless source of fascination for modern storytelling. From recent best picture winner “The Artist,” to 2015’s “Trumbo,” artists have found themselves looking back to the beginning of America’s most profitable art form.

The trend makes complete sense. The birth of Hollywood was a glamorous and absurd time, filled with incompetence. Santa Monica College’s 2016 production of “Once in a Lifetime” — the play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman — captures the glamour of this era beautifully, but struggles to weave the absurdity and incompetence into a consistently engaging narrative.

“Once in a Lifetime” tells the story of vaudeville duo May Daniels and Dr. George Lewis, and their manager Jerry Hyland. When Hyland sees the debut of the first movie with sound — or talkie — 1927’s “The Jazz Singer,” he sells the duo’s vaudeville act and insists that they move to Hollywood. Daniels cracks a scheme to open a school focused on training silent film actors how to speak, and the next day, they’re off.

The opening scenes are a slog: the material is heavy on exposition and light on jokes. Any jokes that are there, for the most part, fall flat. It was clear early on that Hart and Kaufman’s material may need to be elevated by better performances than the ones offered here in order to truly shine. Even the boisterous film critic Helen Hobart — played by Jo Ellen Docherty, a game performer giving it her all — fails to pick up any comedic momentum.

Life is not truly breathed into the play until the opening of the first Hollywood scene. Opening in The Gold Room of the Hotel Stilton, the gorgeous set is occupied by new characters. The beginning of this scene serves as a lively introduction to the world of old Hollywood. An eccentric cast of characters prances around the stage, manifesting and commenting on a variety of classic “Hollywood type” people. This is where the production succeeds best as satire and entertainment. It is a hilarious sequence filled with entertaining — if unhinged — ensemble performances.

It is simply hard for a story to keep up any momentum when the characters at its heart are the most boring ones present by such a wide margin. Daniels, Lewis, and Hyland are all largely unengaging characters. This can definitely be attributed partially to the script. If these characters were meant to inspire laughter, the jokes were lost in translation. They don’t have very interesting personalities and the story of their rise and fall is handled with too much brevity to ever inspire investment. Most major plot developments happen in between scenes, limiting the audience’s opportunity to engage with the main characters’ growth.

The performances certainly catch some of the blame here as well though. Jordan Symone Barksdale and James Scognamillo — playing May Daniels and Jerry Hyland, respectively — both bring a great deal of energy to their role. Unfortunately, Barksdale essentially delivers every line the same way. It gives the impression of a lack of understanding of the material on the part of the actor — an admittedly common staple of college theater, usually the fault of the director. If anything, Scognamillo brings too much energy to his portrayal of Hyland. Michael Deven Martin’s turn as Hollywood’s luckiest dumb guy Dr. George Lewis is cute at times. But a one-note character is not helped by a one-note performance: Martin makes the same facial expression after almost every line delivery.

The margins are filled with lively and exciting characters that command attention and laughter when on stage. Paul Gabriel’s turn as infuriated playwright Lawrence Vail is a standout, along with Bob Rodriguez’s towering Hollywood god Glogauer — even if his material is decidedly one note. Seeing these strong performances makes it all the more unfortunate that the main trio can’t find the same success.

The only truly entertaining parts of the play are when the main characters are cast aside and the focus is turned more to the pure insanity of Hollywood. I found that as the show went on, the more characters present on stage, the more laughs earned from the audience. These higher energy scenes bumped up the pace and added a higher volume of jokes, both very welcome changes. “Once in a Lifetime” found its strength in its ensemble, but at a running time of two and a half hours, a fair share of the ensemble work still dragged or flopped.

The production’s only consistent redeeming factors were the beautiful costume and makeup work, and the downright professional sets. Costuming a cast of old Hollywood characters makes for an expensive and complicated task, but the crew here really nailed it. The sets were intricate and impressive, clearly made with a real craft and attention to detail. The set of the reception room at the Glogauer studio was especially impressive, except, of course, when the projected movie posters momentarily turned into the Microsoft logo (oops!).

“Once in a Lifetime” provides some memorable comedic moments, especially in its climactic ending. The sets and the costumes are expensive, detailed, and beautiful. But it’s too long, the performances are inconsistent, and the material just doesn’t seem to be that good. Hey, maybe it’s a better representation of old Hollywood than I thought!