The Acting Company and The Time of Your Life

For more than five decades, Julliard’s Drama division has been recognized as one of the premiere acting schools in the world. Founded in 1968, it was originally led by the legendary director, producer and actor John Houseman. Famed for his collaborations with the likes of Orson Welles, Houseman was known for his demanding attitude and clear vision. He also had an incredible eye for talent. His work in the 1930s and 40s left a major impact on the world of theatre, and his work also touched on that of William Saroyan; he presented the first production of Hello Out There in 1941.

The first cohort of actors graduated from the program, called Group 1, included some fine actors who had been honed through Houseman’s demanding methods. The rigors of Julliard’s drama program were felt by the actors.

 “They really worked us, 12, 13 hours a day, class, rehearsals, shows. Only 14 graduated. Some dropped out, some were eliminated, there were a few nervous breakdowns and a couple of attempted suicides,” noted Patti LuPone in an interview in 1975.

logo lightHouseman realized that after graduation, many of the fine actors he had helped to guide through the program would need assistance in acclimating to the professional theatre world. Along with Margot Harley, Houseman founded The Group 1 Acting Company, later called the City Center Acting Company, and later simply The Acting Company. Initially consisting of the first group of Julliard graduating actors, the company began touring almost immediately. Houseman recognized that touring is where many actors hone their skills, and that as a long-time draw, companies full of young actors rarely pull in regular crowds in New York alone. These were little-known actors in search of their fame, after all, and not the kind who sell many tickets.

 In 1976, The Acting Company produced The Time of Your Life.

Houseman and Saroyan corresponded over the years, but Houseman appears to have not produced another piece of Saroyan’s in the intervening years. The choice of The Time of Your Life must have been an easy one; it had been a popular piece with actors since it was first performed in 1939.  The combination of melancholic optimism and the intricacy of the dialogue make it a showy piece, even if some of the comedy is very much of its time. The combination of moods and tones allow for exploration not only of character, but of concept. Saroyan often pointed out that The Time of Your Life wasn’t about one thing, but about the intersection of nearly everything, and for an actor, that gives them a range to play with.

The Acting Company began touring the show in 1975, taking it to both professional and university theatres around the country along with the musical The Robber Bridegroom. The plays were directed by Jack O’Brien, and received very good notices from many local critics, though some pointed out that cast may have been far fresher than the material, and others that the actors all seemed too inexperienced for the roles they inhabited. These were fairly young actors whose technique was informed by the most modern methods, and at this point, the play was more than 35 years old. Touring around the country, the troop gained an impressive amount of experience, and in 1976, WNET, New York’s biggest public broadcasting channel, produced The Time of Your Life as an episode of Theater in America. This is currently available on DVD and is an amazing record not only of the play, but of the members of the Acting Company in general.

Joe, a well-heeled benefactor of many of those whose paths cross his at Nick’s Pacific Avenue Saloon, is played with a strong sense of joy and pathos by Nicolas Surovy. He took the role and gave a performance that moves fluidly between tones and moods. That’s a difficult matter for some actors, because it can come off as uneven, but Surovy uses that flow as a storytelling technique. Surovy would go on to a long career in film and television.

image w1280Kitty Duvall is a role that many actresses have tackled with varying approaches. Julie Haydon played her shining against the darkness of her situation. In the Playhouse 90 version of the play, Betsy Palmer played her with more anger and overall with more caustic distrust. Here, Patti LuPone plays Kitty with an incredible amount of weight on her shoulders. She infuses a sense of dread at times, and at other points, she seems as if she’s dissociated from her surroundings. It’s a beautiful performance, heart-breaking at times, and just one of many she’s had over a fifty year career. She won Tony awards for her work in Evita, Gypsy, and Company, and has appeared in dozens of films and television programs.

 Tom, Joe’s lackey, is a fascinating character who can be played several ways with equal support from the text. Many play him as a put-upon schlub who is under Joe’s thumb because he saved his life. Dick York chose that route in the Playhouse 90 version and is sometimes cited as being the original intent of the role. Here, Norman Snow, Jr. gives him a sense of duty and hopefulness that certainly represents Saroyan’s most enduring theme. His interactions with Tom are impressive, with both of them feeling as if they’re fulfilling some unspoken contract. Well, mostly unspoken. Snow’s performance was well-regarded, and he would go on to have many roles on television and film, notably 1984’s The Last Starfighter. He passed away in 2022.

One of the most important roles in setting the tone of the play is Nick, the owner of the saloon. He is both affable and gruff, and represents Saroyan’s fondness for those whose contributions are often over-looked. The role has attracted some excellent performances from actors like William Bendix, Jack Klugman, and Dennis Farina. Benjamin Hendrickson gives as strong a performance as you’ll ever see, and one that helps establish the timing of the play. He plays a pivotal role, and one which helps make the comedy feel more solid. Hendrickson continued acting until his death in 2006, notably on the soap opera As the World Turns.

McCarthy, the longshoreman who is also a philosopher and exceptionally well-read, may be the kind of character Saroyan is best remembered for. He presents heady concepts in a clear and passionate way, and those around him recognize his intelligence and admire him for it. They also wonder how he ended up as a longshoreman and not a professor. This kind of role can be tricky, and Saroyan is clearly making a point about the separation of profession and intelligence. In many ways, the role of McCarthy is similar to that of Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting. McCarthy was played by Kevin Kline. Kline became one of Hollywood’s most respected actors in the 1980s, including winning an Academy Award. He’s also kept working on stage, winning three Tony Awards. His television work includes an eleven year stint on the animated series Bob’s Burgers

51TGK1SXPGL. AC UF8941000 QL80 If there is a heavy in The Time of Your Life, it is the heel, Blick. He’s the head of the San Francisco vice squad and is particularly down on the sex workers who inhabit that part of town. He frequents Nick’s saloon, which Nick is not happy about. The end of the play is brought about by his cruel treatment of Kitty, forcing her to perform a striptease on the small stage. In the 1976 production, this scene is exceptionally heavy, almost oppressively so for a television segment. No previously recorded version of the work had the sort of intensity that The Acting Company put into the scene. Actor J. W. Harper infuses the role with malevolence. His performance is menacing, and the contrast between Blick and Tom and their treatment of Kitty is a key element to establishing the role of institutions and individuals in how we view not only sex workers, but anyone from a non-privileged class. 

Perhaps the most interesting performance, and one of Saroyan’s overall most memorable characters, is Kit Carson, played here by David Schramm. The role of the old codger who fills every available space with his rambling stories of questionable veracity, is a classic, and Schramm approached it by bringing both comical joy and a certain sense of longing for a more impressive past. Schramm’s career included a long tenure on the television program Wings, as well as continuing to act on stage until his death in 2020.

The smaller roles in the play had many impressive actors as well. Richard Ooms played The Arab, whose mantra-like statement, ‘No foundation all the way down the line,’ is the most memorable line from the play. Ooms’ career has been mostly in film, though with occasional forays into theatre.  Glynis Bell, who played Lorene, has largely remained in theatre. On the other hand, Brooks Baldwin, who played the role of the dancer and comedian Harry (first performed by Gene Kelly) has acted from time to time, but is far better known as a dialect coach for film and theatre.

00f53 The Time Of Your Life Playbill 10 75One other notable performance is that of the author himself. William Saroyan read the prologue. The prologue is read as voice-over - the only image we get of Saroyan himself is from a brief shot of a 1940s headshot hung on a bar post. The photo, of Saroyan in the fedora that was his trademark in the days before he grew his legendary mustache, is one of the most famous of all images of Saroyan.

While not all reviews of the program were positive, most noted the quality of the acting and direction. While there have been several staged revivals of The Time of Your Life, particularly in the years following Saroyan’s death in 1981, there have been no television productions since the Theatre in America version. In fact, other than two recordings of university productions on YouTube, there appear to be no more recent filmed versions of the play at all.

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