This Wonderful Life | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

This Wonderful Life 

click to enlarge It's George, by Mark: Mark Setlock plays George -- and everyone else -- in Pittsburgh Public Theater's This Wonderful Life. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RIC EVANS.
  • Photo courtesy of Ric Evans.
  • It's George, by Mark: Mark Setlock plays George -- and everyone else -- in Pittsburgh Public Theater's This Wonderful Life.

A friend of mine used to say that the only reason she went to the theater in December was to avoid having to sit through the ubiquitous and sentimental Frank Capra classic It's a Wonderful Life. So as a Christmas present (and because I am, no matter the season, a bitch) I might give her two tickets to the new show at the Pittsburgh Public Theater — This Wonderful Life, a one-man retelling of the Capra film.

But there are others who don't share my friend's low regard for the movie -- specifically, actor Mark Setlock, who conceived the evening and stars in this adaptation written by Steve Murray and directed by Martha Banta.

Your enjoyment will be directly related to how much you like the movie, because when all's said and done, Setlock is simply performing the film onstage. Though he plays all the parts, some via pre-recorded dialogue, Setlock doesn't do it word for word — he functions as narrator as well, dispatching exposition with a few asides to the audience and condensing other scenes in a couple of precise sentences. The whole thing comes in at around 80 intermissionless minutes. The film itself is a little over two hours long, and while I don't actually hate the movie, if I have to see It's a Wonderful Life, an 80-minute version of it is probably the best way to go.

But I'm not sure, really, that I get the point of this theatrical exercise. When I say Setlock is simply performing the film, I mean just that. The evening is utterly free of any post-modern irony or satire. Setlock isn't examining the movie's place or purpose in the zeitgeist. He's not using it to comment on 1940s Hollywood, or America's own naïve view of itself. He's not questioning why or how this film became a cultural touchstone, or whether that's a good or bad thing. He's just acting out the film for us.

Consequently, outside of his own talent as a performer (which is considerable), Setlock brings nothing new to the party. Any power the show has comes not from him (or Murray or Banta), but from the original screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling; from Capra's direction; and from the remembered screen presence of Jimmy Stewart (whom Setlock impersonates fairly well). And yeah, I guess some part of me bridles at using the enormous power of the theater for the dubious pleasure of re-creating a movie on stage ... especially a movie as, ah, undemanding as this one.

But in the interest of consumer reporting, I should tell you that the audience loved it. The cheers and tears all around served to remind me, I suppose, that anybody who would actually go see a stage version of It's a Wonderful Life would probably be appalled if Setlock had indulged in any po-mo desecration of their sacred holiday artifact.

It takes all kinds, I guess, and if you're one of that kind, you're sure to enjoy This Wonderful Life.

This Wonderful Life continues through Dec. 16. Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-316-1600 or



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