Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 17, 2014
Act One A play 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. Original music by Louis Rosen. Cast in alphabetical order: Bob Ari, Bill Army, Will Brill, Laurel Casillo, Chuck Cooper, Santino Fontana, Steven Kaplan, Will LeBow, Mimi Lieber, Charlotte Maier, Noah Marlowe, Andrea Martin, Greg McFadden, Deborah Offner, Lance Roberts, Matthew Saldivar, Matthew Schechter, Tony Shalhoub, Jonathan Spivey, Wendy Rich Stetson, Bob Stillman, Amy Warren.
It's other kinds of dust that are the real problem with James Lapine's new play Act One, which just opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in a Lincoln Center Theater production. But if you're not likely to learn a great deal from this exceedingly safe adaptation of Moss Hart's 1959 autobiography of the same title, which concerns the childhood and early career of one of the 20th century's guiding theatrical forces, you're also guaranteed an evening that's as genial and likable as it is averse to insight or innovation.
The main thing distinguishing Hart's rise from countless others is the caliber of names involved. There's the most obvious, of course: George S. Kaufman, his early mentor and longtime writing partner. There are a few other members of the fabled Algonquin Round Table (Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Alexander Woollcott). There are producers, both big (Jed Harris, Sam Harris) and less so (Augustus Pitou). For fans of Broadway, or even just the American theatre, in the formative 1920s and 1930s, the curiosity factor of how a poor boy from the Bronx managed to mingle in these circles is deserving of some fascination.
Otherwise, the story seldom screams for the splashy treatment it's received here. Lured into theaters by his Aunt Kate, who's hated (and eventually kicked out) by his father, Moss weaves from office boy to playwright to failed playwright to director to playwright in trouble out of town to playwright with a hit, all in the span of a relatively few years. And he survives that journey by virtue of — what else? — a unique combination of talent, spunk, and spine that make him something of a rarity among the more glitteringly ossified Main Stem pros.
The book derives most of its charm and its juice from Hart's vivid you-are-there writing style, a voice that doesn't have a similarly authoritative analogue in the play. Though Lapine, who also directed, splits the role of Moss into a young boy (played by Matthew Schechter), the esteemed final product (Tony Shalhoub), and the man-in-progress in between (Santino Fontana), and has the latter two share narration duties, he falls short of achieving the same brotherly, tour-guide feeling that Hart did in the book.
Unfortunately, Act II isn't so lucky. What should be an electrifying, behind-the-scenes look at how Moss achieves his big break with Once in a Lifetime is mostly reduced to a lengthy string of scenes in which he and Kaufman write, bicker about writing, or bicker about not writing, something that's about as inert as it sounds. That Kaufman is constructed and played (by Shalhoub) very cartoonishly, as a sentimentality-hating, germophobic workaholic, without much deeper shading, enormous chunks of time pass with either few or no words being spoken, or even less locomotion maintained.
Fontana, who's been good for years (The Importance of Being Earnest, Sons of the Prophet) and just keeps getting better, is delightful as the most major Moss, smoothly blending innocence and unchecked ambition without becoming mawkish, and finds an engaging suppleness within a straitlaced, stiff-backed young man. He shows you that Moss simultaneously believes that he doesn't belong where he's ended up, and that he's finally found home — a potent combination that results, for Fontana, in an impressive star turn that never feels like one.
Andrea Martin angles a bit broad as the loving Aunt Kate, but pulls herself back to deliver satisfying turns as agent Frieda Fishbein and Kaufman's wife, Beatrice. Shalhoub is rockier, tasked perhaps with playing too many conflicting characters (he's also Moss's father) without strongly differentiating them, and moving from the adult Moss to his cloudy Kaufman in mere seconds induces a whiplash of confusion. Supporting actors, who include Mimi Lieber as Moss's mother, Will LeBow as Augustus Pitou and Jed Harris, Chuck Cooper as Max Siegel and the actor Charles Gilpin, and Matthew Saldivar as a dreadfully miscast Irish actor in Moss's comic-western debut, fare much better.
It's when the unique personalities of pre-Depression New York shine through most brightly that Act One fares best; you feel closest to not just Moss but Hart, and the aborning cultural sensation that so captivated them both. It's difficult not to wish that Lapine had subjected the script to the same rigorous fat-cutting that his version of Kaufman insists upon (ad nauseam) for Once in a Lifetime, but if a story must be this robotically familiar, you could do worse than to have too much of Hart's good thing.