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'Act One' is great tribute to Moss Hart and the Theatre

Santino Fontana and Tony Shalhoub watch opening night of their first collaboration, 'Once in a Lifetime'
Santino Fontana and Tony Shalhoub watch opening night of their first collaboration, 'Once in a Lifetime'
Joan Marcus

Act One

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Widely considered to be the best theatre autobiography ever written, Moss Hart’s Act One has been adapted as a play by James Lapine. Mr. Lapine directs the Lincoln Center production as well. The story concerns young Moss Hart growing up with his family in the Bronx and how his Aunt introduces him to the theatre. Growing up poor in an overcrowded apartment, Moss Hart was determined to leave that world behind––somehow by way of Broadway. Starting as an office boy for a second rate producer, a series of episodes and connections leads him to producer Sam Harris who wants to produce his new play if he is willing to work with George S. Kaufman as a collaborator. He is and the rest is history.

The best chunk of the two and a half hour evening is the scenes of Kaufman and Hart learning to work together. There are other choice scenes, but they are broken up by large amounts of narration from either young Moss Hart (Santino Fontana) or the older Moss Hart (Tony Shalhoub). The narration helps transitions and is often necessary, but becomes trying by the second act. The character of the older Hart turns out to be completely unnecessary as we never get that far into his history. Since the young Hart is narrating as well, the older version is superfluous.

Mr. Shalhoub also plays Hart’s father and is immensely entertaining as Kaufman. Mr. Fontana is perfect as the young Hart and gallantly traverses the multi-level, rotating set while projecting his narration. The job requires some stamina as Hart is rarely off stage and Mr. Fontana seems to pull it off with ease.

As the Aunt, Andrea Martin is a warm presence and she gets the most dramatic scene of the play when Shalhoub as Hart’s father, kicks her out of the house. Ms. Martin is also lovely later on as Kaufman’s wife and again as a wise-cracking agent. Chuck Cooper is very effective as Charles Gilpin in a scene from The Emperor Jones and Will LeBow gives the second rate producer a humorously quirky rendering.

There are many more actors involved, all playing multiple characters. Live piano plays original music by Louis Rosen for transitions. Beowulf Boritt has devised a huge rotating structure that allows for an elegant movement from one scene to the next. This singular structure of levels and stairs depicts apartments, offices, street scenes and a theatre. The set is so wonderfully rendered that the production might be criticized for being all about a set and not a story. On the other hand, Boritt’s idea for dealing with the multiple locations of the story couldn’t be more sensible and works efficiently. Jane Greenwood’s costumes beautifully depict both the late 1920s as well as illuminating character. Ken Billington has met the creative challenge of lighting the rotating set of multiple levels, achieving some beautiful visions.

Somehow the stage adaptation doesn’t capture what is compelling about the book, but for theatre enthusiasts, James Lapine’s take on Act One will be of great interest. Perhaps too much has to happen to make the play truly dynamic and the popping from sequence to sequence, tied by narration, reduces the dramatic impact. There is a lot to admire in this production, but this new play is not nearly as dynamic as its subject.

For tickets and more information go to www.lct.org.