`Once in a Lifetime' strikes twice. Layers of caricature dim - but can't kill - revival of Hart/Kaufman farce

Great Performances: Once in a Lifetime PBS, Friday, 9-11 p.m. (check local listings). BBC-TV production of 1930 farce by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, in association with WNET, New York. There's something almost perverse about reviving this 58-year-old comedy smash for ``Great Performances.''

Its target - early Hollywood - is now a faint and unresisting image. The dialogue is a brilliant brand of Broadway slick. And the play was written by two hugely skilled craftsmen who had never actually been to Hollywood or set eyes on the loony stereotypes their clever work holds up for belly laughs.

On top of it all, this is basically a British production, some of whose gifted company must master American accents and attitudes before they dig into the particular people they're playing.

The result is several layers of annoying and ineffective caricature between viewer and the subject being spoofed. But once you accept all the strenuous satire - once you look on the show as a kind of ``Wizard of Oz'' full of fairy-tale creatures - the comic ideas will often be found alive and kicking.

A second-rate vaudeville team get a bright idea: They'll go to Hollywood and be speech consultants - after all, it's the '20s, and the talkies are here. Silent stars will now actually have to speak.

Parade of tinsel-town clich'es

Never mind that in early dialogue, while they're still in New York, we've heard the trio speaking an exotic brand of Manhattanese. In the pompous and self-deluding movie world, they're accepted as elegant elocutionists.

From there, the plot tackles a surrealistic parade of tinsel-town clich'es - like a glossy studio party where ``dahlings'' and phoniness abound, or a European studio mogul pursued by hopeful performers and script-waving writers.

It's all seen through a filter of overeager satire - some of which misses by a mile. To be effective, even the most outlandish farce needs the occasional link of reality to its target. This tends to be missing here, and the show lacks the authority of many BBC American imports. The vision of Hollywood - only slightly rooted in the feel of the place - is a dream of glittery parties and anarchic moviemaking.

Yet sometimes comic ideas push through the burlesque - as when a grotesquely pretentious columnist is dupped into accepting George - a slightly simple-minded member of the three vaudevillians - as a distinguished speech expert.

Thanks to the Kaufman and Hart brilliance - the acid lurking in the lines, the economy of plot structure - we are often the caught up in the headlong rush of comic action. Bursts of frenetic humor save silly or awkward moments - as when a European studio mogul overreacts to an idea suggested by George.

Hollywood saw dollar signs

Hollywood was not offended when the play opened in 1933. Instead it characteristically saw dollar signs. After the play became a hit, a Paramount studio chief wired Kaufman a $40,000 offer for the play's screen rights.

Kaufman - seeing another opening to spike Hollywood - waggishly wired back: ``Offer $40,000 for Paramount.'' With perfect comedy timing, Kaufman waitied a beat, then sent a second barbed wire: ``Disregard my offer. Have changed my mind.''

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