I’m not sure what it says about me or the company I keep, but some of my best memories are in neighborhood drinking establishments. The relationships with the regulars, the intrigue of the interlopers, the stories and strings of gossip that continue like soap opera episodes from one visit to the next, and the general feeling of welcome that comes with saddling a stool and having a pint handed over from a friend who calls you by name. My favorite bars aren’t dark places to wallow in depression, but dingy ones made to celebrate good times—a great thing doesn’t feel like it’s actually happened until I’ve raised a glass to it with like-minded liquored-up compatriots.
I would drink at Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant and Entertainment Palace, the setting, circa late 1939, for William Saroyan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Time of Your Life. At this self-described dive bar near the San Francisco pier, where most from uptown are either afraid or have no reason to visit, the regulars are soaked to the bone with devastating pasts and nonetheless levitating with blind optimism. Many are immigrants, including the big Italian behind the bar, Nick (Tom Stephan), who’s just as quick to defend his turf from crooked cops as he is to provide an emaciated city kid a hot meal and a paid gig behind the saloon’s piano. Then there’s the Arab (Thomas Bruner) who sits stoically at the bar, looking like a caricature of Mark Twain, only occasionally announcing in a booming baritone that there’s “no foundation, all the way down the line”; the young man (Brandon Johnson) who plays the corner pinball machine all day long in hopes of hearing it spew the “Star Spangled Banner”; the throng of streetwalkers looking for sailors or other Johns in between shots of Jim Beam, and one (Kelly Long Olson) who’s particularly eager to trade her role in the world’s oldest profession for her long-lost dreams; and there’s the wily Davy Crockett look-alike (Jared Van Heel) who stumbles in looking for a free drink in exchange for a recounting of his ridiculous, hard-to-believe history. He asks once, “I don’t suppose you ever fell in love with a midget weighing 39 pounds?” and, like any good storyteller, full of fiction or otherwise, the old coot saves his best tale for last.
At the center table, listening to and rooting on all of these characters, is Joe (Aaron Bartz), the distinguished drunken jester of the joint. Joe is That Guy, the regular who defines a bar; he either knows everyone or takes the time to introduce himself by offering a glass of his favorite champagne. He preaches a bizarre but sharp intoxicated logic, has a bottomless wallet and generous spirit for endless rounds of drinks, and no shortage of stamina or lust for liquor. Joe’s That Guy who always insists on one more round and one more story before the night is over—he doesn’t drink all the time, “only when I’m awake,” he explains, because, “If I don’t drink I get fascinated by unimportant things. I get busy, just like everyone else.” It’s not clear why a big spender like Joe chose a dive like Nick’s as his place, but perhaps it’s because the joint needs someone like him to keep the mood light. Joe embraces his purpose, and he’s constantly charging his naïve assistant (Garrett Burreson) to fetch oddities, such as boxes of toys and enough sticks of gum to choke a horse, to lift spirits.
There are 27 different characters in The Time of Your Life, and what makes the play so enjoyable is that each one brings something through the front door. For me, director Joe Proctor’s version was less about any deeper meanings—a philosophy of life or, more profoundly, each character’s representation of a different segment of the United States’ transitional pre-World War II population—and more about the tapestry of personalities surrounding the keg taps. The Time of Your Life is about subscribing to Joe’s philosophy of fun and friendship, and simply enjoying the complementary performances from the ensemble cast.
For instance, Bartz’s Joe looks ruggedly handsome and sloppily suave, perfect as a 1930s-era playboy—he’s just as convincingly smooth hitting on a proper woman as he is laughable delivering lines with roughly 30 sticks of gum in his mouth. Stephan’s Nick has the imposing presence and soft sentimentality of the dually challenged bartender; he looks the part as well as he plays it. While these two anchor the performance, the scene-stealing belongs to one of the many bar regulars: Richard Dunbar, as hopeless romantic Dudley R. Bostwick. Dunbar is strikingly unrecognizable compared to his leading role as the paranoid hunk in Montana Rep Missoula’s Bug earlier this year. Here he possesses a geeky persona punctuated by a hilarious accent drowning in saliva, turning words like “place” into “placshe.”
The audience never hears Nick ask for “last call” in his saloon, and never is there a reason to want him to. Throughout the one day the play encompasses, the bar is never boring or morose. In one well-executed sequence the spotlight focuses patiently, one shot at a time, on a character playing the piano, another at the stage working on his comedy routine, a homesick hooker dancing by herself, the lovelorn Bostwick awaiting his date and Joe in the center holding court with a new friend. The audience can’t help but get wrapped up in the pulse of the place, thirsty for a chance to raise a glass ourselves.
The Time of Your Life runs at the University of Montana’s Masquer Theatre through Saturday, May 6, at 7:30 PM. Call 243-4581.