PLAYBILL PICKS: The Five Greatest Plays About Hollywood

By Robert Simonson
10 May 2013

Lawrence Veil and Julia Coffey in a recent production at ACT in San Francisco.
Photo by Kevin Berne

ONCE IN A LIFETIME. This 1930 play was the first effort—and first hit—by the soon-to-be-famous duo of Kaufman and Hart. It actually began as a Hart creation, until the writer invited Kaufman to take part in a few rewrites. Kaufman also directed the Broadway premiere, which ran for more than a year. The play is set during the fraught time when the advent of "talkies" was sending Hollywood into confusion. Three desperate vaudevillians, including George Lewis and May Daniels, arrive in town in hope of selling themselves as elocution experts. They encounter a wide array of Hollywood zanies: the megalomaniacal producer, dumb but beautiful actresses, stage mothers and, standing in for the authors, a playwright so abused and bewildered by his treatment that he's outfitted for a straightjacket. (Kaufman actually played this role himself in the production.) As in Merton, the idiot of the bunch makes out best: dull-witted George Lewis ends up directing a terrible film that is mistaken for a masterwork. The play has been revived on Broadway and off, on the West End and at the National Theatre, and it has received countless regional productions.

"I've always loved the script," said Neil Pepe, artistic director of Atlantic Theatre Company, which has produced the comedy. "It just captured, at that time period, what it meant to be interested in show business as it pertained to film, and how that played out in Hollywood as opposed to New York. Kaufman and Hart's ability to cut to the humorous truth and the tragic truth of what that business is was just outstanding. Even in contemporary times, writers still talk about what it means to try to ply their trade in movies, how there's a lot of money in Hollywood, and how they get lost in the economic shuffle. In that aspect, like in many others in the play, that play is timeless."

"I think Once in a Lifetime is a classic because it manages to be a terrific satire that has a great big heart," said Mark Rucker, who directed the play recently at ACT in San Francisco. "May Daniels is one of the great female characters of the theater in the early 20th century. Acerbic and whip-smart, she uses irony to survive in a man's world where she is surrounded by idiots. But beneath her wit-laden armor beats a heart of gold. After out of town try-outs this play almost died when Kaufman walked away from it. Hart realized that it needed to be a love story as well as a send-up and convinced Kaufman to revised it. Thank goodness, he was right!"