We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

From the moment a hangdog fellow sprinkles a bit of salt onto the head of his beer and raps his knuckles on the bar in thanks, it’s clear that director Terry Kester and his large American Century Theater cast have tapped into the fundamental sadness of The Time of Your Life, William Saroyan’s bighearted, deceptively bitter Pulitzer Prize choice from 1939. Times are tough: A young guy tells elaborate jokes and dances his tail off by the piano, hoping to win a gig as an entertainer; another man passes out from hunger; pinball games and love stories go bad. It reinforces Saroyan’s what’s-it-all-about theme that the play has less of a plot, really, than an ongoing general funk. Nothing much happens until Joe—the shattered idealist at the hub of this ambling story—tries to broker a romance between Tom, his pie-eyed errand boy, and Kitty Duval, the two-dollar whore Tom adores. The Time of Your Life is a bluesy, drunken riff shot through with hope and sadness, fueled by fury. (Saroyan was a crank, or a purist, or probably both: He turned down that Pulitzer.) Cross the bubbly shenanigans of You Can’t Take It With You and the desperate pipe dreaming of The Iceman Cometh and you get the idea. Joe, given a well-heeled weariness by Bruce Alan Rauscher, is a moneyed drunk who tries like hell to do nothing but good for humanity, starting by planting himself in Nick’s saloon and drinking champagne all day long, spreading cash and good will where he can. A certain amount of philosophizing from the bottom of a glass ensues as the regulars traipse through with their various fantasies and disasters, and there is unvarnished sentiment aplenty: Joe faithfully bets on a horse named (what else?) Precious Time, and Nick the barkeep (played with almost too much paternal twinkle by Joe Cronin) nurtures a soft spot for the down-and-outers who come his way. “Joe, people are so wonderful,” Nick gushes after a scrappy newsboy billing himself as a great lyric tenor offers an unsolicited audition with “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” But when a heavy-handed cop keeps coming around and hassling the innocent (a category that includes the two-dollar whore, who naturally has a heart of gold), genial Nick swears he could do murder. Kester is finely attuned to the drama’s undertow of discontent, and so is Rauscher, playing Joe with a forced cheerfulness that’s never completely unclouded by melancholy. The deep-hard-times atmosphere—the trickiest thing about the play (and the thing that keeps it from getting unbearably sticky)—is consistent, from the Depression-era pinball machine and cash register on Beth Baldwin’s agreeably run-down barroom set to the live piano and harmonica tunes that often pulse lightly under the conversations. When a few characters begin to improvise a little blues because, as one laments in a refrain heard since the beginning of the play, there is “no foundation, all the way down the line”—well, amen, brother, and slide me a beer.

—Nelson Pressley