Review: Act One

by Lynn on May 19, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Act One

At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York, New York.

Written and directed by James Lapine (from the 1959 memoir by Moss Hart).
Sets by Beowulf Boritt.
Costumes by Jane Greenwood.
Lighting by Ken Billington.
Sound by Dan Moses Schreier.
Starring: Santino Fontana
Will LeBow
Mimi Lieber
Andrea Martin
Matthew Schechter
Tony Shalhoub
and many more.

A love-letter to the theatre, given a splendid production.

Background. Act One by Moss Hart is the book read by every stage-struck kid. It survives on the bookshelf because it is beautifully written, evokes the intoxicating world of New York theatre in the 1930’s, and confirms that if you start from nothing, have drive and talent, you can make it in the theatre. For Hart, this meant opening his first play on Broadway.

James Lapine has beautifully adapted Hart’s memoir for the stage. His superb production of Act One at the Vivian Beaumont Theater confirms the lifelong long affair that many of us have had with the theatre – and will probably send us back to the book once again.

Act One is exactly that. It covers the early years in Hart’s life, from his family’s emigration (from England) to the Bronx, through to the Broadway opening of Once in a Lifetime. What came after—more plays and a directing career — is left to Hart’s biographers to discuss.

The Story. The play takes place from 1914 to 1930. In 1914 Moss Hart is ten years old, living in a cramped apartment in the Bronx with his parents, his younger brother Bernie, his aunt Kate (his mother’s sister), and an assortment of boarders to help with the rent. The apartment is always noisy. Hart’s unhappy, frustrated father is always angry and railing at something—usually Kate, because she does nothing to help out—or the demanding boarders. Hart’s harried mother is the peace-maker. Kate is imperious and impervious to everything around her except Hart, her soul mate. Kate loves the theatre and regales Hart with her adventures. Eventually she takes him to the theatre with her (he skips school). This continues until Hart’s father had enough of Kate and makes her pack up and leave. Hart doesn’t have any contact with her for seven years, at which point he takes her to the theatre.

When Hart is older he gets a summer job organizing entertainments for resorts in the Catskills. He parlays his way into a position as office boy for Augustus Pitou, a theatre manager, producer and playwright. He thrives. He tries his hand at playwriting to help his boss in a pinch, but doesn’t admit he’s the playwright until the play has been programmed. And eventually one of his plays, Once in a Lifetime, comes to the attention of George S. Kaufman who agrees to collaborate with the young Moss Hart.

When Hart and Kaufman begin working together, Hart is 26 and Kaufman is 41, a celebrated director, playwright and the drama editor of the New York Times. Intimidating for Hart, who addresses Kaufman as “Mr. Kaufman” for a long while.

While working with Kaufman, a master of the polished phrase and the perfectly placed joke, Hart becomes familiar with a myriad of Kaufman’s eccentricities. (Kaufman was a germophobe and hated to shake hands, choosing instead to raise one finger in the air and wave it around; he washed his hands incessantly; he thought best either pacing or lying on the floor; he hated sentiment; he never seemed to break to eat, having cookies and tea instead which they ate while working.) Hart also learns perhaps his most important lesson—if Act Two isn’t working it doesn’t matter that one writing partner is accomplished and the other inexperienced: fixing it will be an agonizing slog for both. Especially if the solution is elusive.

Throughout this travail a tight partnership forms. A new writing star is born in Moss Hart, and Once in a Lifetime becomes a Broadway hit. The story is rich in theatre lore, anecdotes about notables who started from nothing and became ‘stars’ in their own right, and stories of theatre life.

The Production. Playwright-Director James Lapine’s production begins with a scene from a Restoration Comedy, with the play audience watching from a balcony above the stage. One woman in the raised audience laughs uproariously. No one else does. The woman is Kate, young Moss Hart’s Aunt Kate. She goes home still smiling but is too tired to tell him about it, so Moss contents himself with pouring over the program. This is our introduction to the ten-year old Moss and his great influence, his aunt.

Beowulf Boritt’s multi-levelled, revolving set puts us in the cramped world of the Bronx tenement. Flimsy curtains separate room from room. The only real door is the front door. With a revolve we are in the cramped, poster-walled office of Augustus Pitou. With another revolve we are in the sumptuous, multi-levelled swanky apartment of George S. Kaufman with large, beautifully and brightly appointed rooms. Every room has a solid door that closes. With each turn of the revolve a new location is revealed and director James Lapine is able to efficiently chart Hart’s rise to success, from cramped quarters, to office boy in a theatre office while putting on entertainments and writing shows for the Catskills, to landing at George S. Kaufman’s apartment to begin collaborating on Once in a Life Time.

I don’t think anything prepared Hart for the idiosyncrasies of George S. Kaufman. Tony Shalhoub as Kaufman is a mass of ticks, twitches and obsessive-compulsive behaviours. He makes a hilarious ritual out of Kaufman’s desperate need to wash his hands any time he thinks he’s come in contact with germs.

He rushes to the bathroom and stands in front of the washroom basin and taps. He crosses his right arm over his left arm, reaches out and turns on the taps with his fingers, puts both hands under the water and ‘washes’ his hands. He reaches for a towel and frantically wipes his hands dry as if to put out a fire or remove crawling things from them. Then throws the offending towel in a hamper. Then with his arms uncrossed, he leans in and has his index fingers (?), knuckles turn off the taps. He does not use soap at all. He does this several times and each time it’s as funny.

With a blink and a lightening quick change Shalhoub switches from being Barnet Hart, Moss’s stooped, angry father, to a straight-backed, slickly combed, relaxed, hand-in-his-pocket and easy-going older Moss Hart, to the worrisome, fretting, high-haired George S. Kaufman. This is a gifted actor who becomes invisible when imbuing his characters with the idiosyncrasies that make them distinct.

As the twenty-something Moss Hart about to begin his remarkable career, Santino Fontana bubbles with enthusiasm and tenacity. He’s grateful for Kaufman taking him under his wing but always has to hold back from gushing it out because that drives Kaufman nuts.
There is a wonderful bit of business as Hart and Kaufman are upstairs writing a scene and downstairs, stage right, the scene is being acted out. Then Hart and Kaufman write some changes that are reflected in the scene being acted. The actors below illustrate the new material, one actor looking up in exasperation at the writers upstairs. The scene beautifully shows the slog, glacial pace and small steps needed to reach the payoff.

So much for the world of the work. Kaufman’s wife Beatrice gives a cocktail party to introduce Hart to some people he should know. Kaufman is reluctant because he wants to work. Hart is dazzled. There is the grumpy Alexander Woolcott reading a book in the corner, grunting when Hart introduces himself. Edna Ferber in what might look like a man’s suit is introduced. Harpo Marks speaks. Dorothy Parker gives Hart the onceover. These are people I read about when I scoured anything to do with the Algonquin Round Table — I just beamed at this. It’s true that the scene feels a tad contrived, with each notable subtracted from the party for the sole purpose of coming downstage to talk to Hart, and then return upstage to the party. But it does set up the world Hart will eventually join. Beatrice Kaufman is gracious and kindly to Hart. Of all the parts that Andrea Martin plays in Act One (Aunt Kate as well as Frieda Fishbein, a matter-of-fact agent), Beatrice is the furthest from Martin’s usual arsenal — yet Martin dissolves into the character. As Hart’s mother, Lillie, Mimi Lieber is harried but has a quiet grace, trying to keep peace between her unhappy husband and her self-centred sister. As both the young Moss Hart and his brother Bernie, Matthew Schechter is sweet and commanding in turn.

A quibble. Before the party scene, someone tells Moss to be wary or careful of Alan Campbell. My eyebrows perk. Later, when Dorothy Parker is going home she wants to share a cab with someone. The someone asks if she’s going home with Alan and her reaction is to crinkle her brow and give a bit of a grimace, then exit. Here’s the problem—we never see Alan Campbell. You can’t have that build-up and then not produce the guy. You can’t tell Hart to be careful and not have the guy appear and then ‘hit’ on him, which is the suggestion. Campbell was married to Dorothy Parker—twice! I guess at that time, if she didn’t want to go home with him, there was trouble. Still either introduce the guy, considering the build-up, or cut the references all together.

Comment. Just as Moss Hart wrote a love letter to the theatre in Act One, so James Lapine has written his own love letter to the theatre with this adaptation. Loaded with dazzle and glamour, Act One pays homage to two gifted men: the exuberant Hart, grateful for opportunity but capable of standing his ground, and the experienced, idiosyncratic Kaufman who knew when to spar and when to yield.

Loved it. I’ll be reading Act One again.

Opened: April 17, 2014.
Closing: June 15, 2014.
Cast: 22; 15 men, 7 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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