“Act One,” the well-meaning stage adaptation of the beloved theatrical memoir by Moss Hart, aims to explore the intoxicating appeal of the theater, but it instead demonstrates the theater’s mysterious alchemy in ways that it surely did not intend. Nearly every element of this play promises sparkling entertainment – the terrific source, the experienced creative team, a huge and hugely talented cast that features Tony Shalhoub, Santino Fontana, Chuck Cooper and Andrea Martin, even an elaborate three-tiered set that rotates – but somehow “Act One” doesn’t even begin to deliver on that promise until, ironically, Act II.
Written and directed by James Lapine, Sondheim’s frequent collaborator, as a way of celebrating his own three decades as a theater artist, the play uses some of Hart’s choice lines and presents many of the incidents from the book.
Three different actors portray Moss Hart at different stages of his life. Matthew Schechter is the child growing up in poverty in the Bronx in the early 1900s, whose love of the theater is inspired by his crazy aunt Kate (Andrea Martin.)
Santino Fontana plays the young man, forced to leave school in eighth grade to help support the family. His first job is in a smelly fur factory, but he is serendipitously hired as an office boy for a theatrical producer, who keeps on calling him Mouse. Hart has a series of theater-related jobs – more like adventures, one more improbable than the next. Still an office boy, he writes a play that his boss takes on the road aiming for Broadway, with disastrous results. At age 17, he debuts as an actor on Broadway, playing a 60-year-old man in “The Emperor Jones” by Eugene O’Neill, opposite the great (if often drunk) performer Charles Gilpin (Chuck Cooper.) That Broadway debut, however, did not launch his career as an actor; it ended it. From there he became a social director at a Catskills hotel – a world now gone, and one Hart writes about extensively in the memoir, but is here given just a single scene. (This is not a criticism; something had to go.)
But more than half of “Act One” the play – as more than half of Hart’s memoir – is taken up with the lengthy process that resulted in Hart’s first big hit on Broadway, the comedy “Once in a Lifetime.”
Tony Shalhoub plays Moss Hart as the older adult (the age he wrote the memoir), and performs the duties of narrator. As with most of the actors in “Act One,” Shalhoub plays multiple roles. His two other parts are as Hart’s embittered immigrant father, and as Hart’s mentor, George S. Kauffman, who co-wrote “Once In A Lifetime.” Kaufman apparently shared many of the quirks of Shalhoub’s most beloved character, Monk. He washed his hands a lot, obsessed over pieces of lint on the rug. He also literally ran away whenever anybody tried to offer him heartfelt thanks. The scenes between Hart and Kaufman as they try to hammer out the script offer a liveliness and a lightness that are the most rewarding parts of the play.
There is plenty here to keep your attention. Beowulf Boritt’s set alone is a complicated contraption three stories tall, that seems always in motion, full of staircases and tenement apartments that spin around into rundown offices and theater balconies, and then that are transformed in the second act to plush offices and Kaufman’s elegant townhouse. The cast of some two dozen, most playing multiple parts, also seem always in motion as they populate scenes that unfold from 1914 to 1930.
Yes, there are some obvious missteps, such as Lapine’s choice to begin with the staging of a scene from Oscar Wilde’s “A Man of No Importance,” which he presents as the first play that Hart ever saw, at age 11. The scene doesn’t feel witty; it certainly doesn’t communicate why a boy would find it the stage so wondrous. At best, it’s confusing, and since we’re presented no context for this drawing room comedy, it seems pompous.
But many of the scenes are more or less faithful re-creations of moments in the memoir. On page, they are moving or amusing or otherwise delightful. And yet on stage, they seem mostly… informative.
It approaches something of a cruel irony that the second act of “Act One” focuses so extensively on how to fix the play-within-the-play, since surely the creative team was having some similar discussions about the play itself. What is on stage most of the time seems…. respectful, as if striving above all for accuracy; the earnest, straightforward scenes rarely capture the lively, passionate, slyly humorous tone Hart establishes in his memoir.
As I wrote in my profile of Santino Fontana, Moss Hart’s name is no longer widely known, but at the time he wrote Act One in 1959, he was one of the most celebrated men of the theater. As a director, he won a Tony for the original production of My Fair Lady. As a playwright, he won a Pulitzer for You Can’t Take It With You, and gained great success with such evergreens as The Man Who Came To Dinner. As a book writer of musicals, he worked with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers; a play he wrote inspired Stephen Sondheim to create a musical adaptation with the same name, Merrily We Roll Along. He wasn’t just a playwright and director. He produced Camelot. He was even the co-owner of the Broadway theater (the Lyceum) where Born Yesterday debuted. As if all that were not enough, Moss Hart also wrote the screenplays for the popular movies Gentleman’s Agreement starring Gregory Peck, Hans Christian Anderson starring Danny Kaye, and A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland.
None of this is in his memoir – which is why it’s called “Act One. ” The book, which was a number one bestseller when it was first published, takes the readers on a funny, hair-raising and often moving journey from Hart’s poverty-stricken childhood to his first big Broadway hit.
The best thing to say about “Act One” the play is that it will remind those who have read “Act One” the memoir just how charming it is, and it will inspire theatergoers who have not read it to get hold of that wonderful book
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center
Written and directed by James Lapine, from the autobiography by Moss Hart; sets by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Ken Billington; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; music by Louis Rosen
Cast: Bill Army (Eddie Chodorov), Will Brill (David Allen/Dore Schary/George), Laurel Casillo (Roz/Mary), Chuck Cooper (Wally/Charles Gilpin/Max Siegel), Santino Fontana (Moss Hart), Steven Kaplan (Irving Gordon/Pianist), Will LeBow (Augustus Pitou/Jed Harris), Mimi Lieber (Lillie Hart/Helen), Charlotte Maier (Phyllis/May), Andrea Martin (Aunt Kate/Frieda Fishbein/Beatrice Kaufman), Deborah Offner (Belle/Mrs. Rosenbloom), Matthew Saldivar (Joseph Regan/Jerry), Matthew Schechter (Moss Hart/Bernie Hart), Tony Shalhoub (Moss Hart/Barnett Hart/George S. Kaufman), Bob Stillman (Priestly Morrison/Sam Harris/Pianist) and Amy Warren (Mrs. Henry B. Harris).
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
Act One is scheduled to run through June 15.