Major productions of Life are rare because Saroyan's little-guy optimism has been out of style for a long, long time. Its warm glow belongs to the Depression. Clifford Odets and John Steinbeck had the same tendencies. In 1945, Steinbeck wrote that the inhabitants of Cannery Row "are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, 'Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,' and he would have meant the same thing."
Nice idea, but hackneyed. By the time Steinbeck published those words they were already unfashionable: World War II had changed the tone of the nation.
So Saroyan's snapshot of San Francisco before the war is stuck in time, and a director needs a clear, steely-eyed vision of the play in order to mount it again. Tina Landau, happily, knew just what she was doing when she directed Life at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater two years ago. Now she's brought it to ACT -- in a co-production with Seattle Rep -- with extraordinary results.
The play centers on a well-dressed Irish-American dreamer, philosopher, and drunk named Joe who sits at the same table at Nick's all day, ordering a steady river of champagne. He reads the paper, pronounces on current events, and manages his affairs through hired gofers or footmen like Tom. For a few dollars and the hope of a loan, Tom runs to the corner store, the pawnshop, or the bookie on Joe's behalf. (Later he gets mixed up with a whore named Kitty, and Joe helps them both out of a bad scrape.) Meanwhile, characters move in and out of Nick's -- a newsboy, another drunk, an Armenian, a vice cop, a love-struck boy named Dudley, and a talentless kid with dreams of making it big on the comedy stage. The usual human tide.
It's easy and tempting to play these characters as paint-by-numbers Local Color; that seems to have been Saroyan's idea. Landau's cast avoids the trap either by exaggerating the roles or by diving straight through them. Jeff Perry does layered, multifaceted work as Joe; he makes him not just a charismatic dive-bar king but also a bumbling, good-hearted, sometimes-incoherent idealist. Patrick New as Tom is a solid straight man, and Mariann Mayberry is a proud, unstable ruin as Kitty. Howard Witt, on the other hand, is (magnificently) over the top as Kitt Carson, an eccentric dressed up in fringes and buckskin like an old frontiersman; and Guy Adkins is a reedy-voiced caricature of the talentless would-be comedian, Harry -- which may be the only way to play him. Adkins wears a bow tie, looks excitedly bug-eyed at the audience, and runs through Harry's bad routines like a skillful, acrobatic clown.
The play has a few indelibly sappy touches. Whenever a new customer tells a story, Joe and the other regulars gather round with their chairs, like Boy Scouts around a fire. Joe all but calls Kitty a prostitute with a heart of gold ("Kitty, come on -- you're one of the few innocent people I know"). And so on. But Landau balances these problems with scenes of real darkness and terror. A flirtation between Joe and an upscale lady in ermine and pearls is hypnotic -- Joan Harris-Gelb suggests a lake of depression under the rich lady's fur -- and the climactic scene, when a vice cop bursts in to ruin everyone's fun, is as hard and grim as the rest of the show is effusive.
G.W. Mercier's exploded set helps. Exposed light racks and scaffoldings rise over the polished wooden bar and the swinging doors of Nick's Saloon. A massive I-beam stretches from the stage to the first mezzanine, where Kitty and her colleagues have set up shop. The action moves up and around the audience; the play literally overflows the stage.
The little-guy clichés of the Depression were as well-intended and simple as today's politically correct clichés about multiculturalism: not wrong, but responsible for a lot of nonsense. It's Landau's brilliance to find the real, democratic feeling behind Saroyan's effusions. Everybody, now: "My country, 'tis of thee/ Sweet land of liberty ...."