Broadway Reviews

Act One

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.
Theatre: Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with one intermission
Schedule: Limited engagement through June 15
Tues 7 pm, Wed 2 pm, Wed 8 pm, Th 8 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm, Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm
Audience : May be inappropriate for 9 and under. Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Tickets: Telecharge

Act One
Santino Fontana and Tony Shalhoub
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's a tale tested (and honored, and wrinkled) by time: a bright-eyed youngster falls in love with art, pursues it to no avail, gets discouraged, plans to quit, and then, at the last possible moment, is redeemed and even exalted by the form he once so adored. The concept is so hackneyed that it would be impossible, or maybe even distasteful, to believe if it hadn't happened as often as it has in real life. But why argue with it too much? Sometimes star stuff really is star dust.

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.

Act One
Andrea Martin and Matthew Schechter
Photo by Joan Marcus

Without that, Act One does tend toward and-now-I-wrote, and-now-I-produced, and-now-I-fretted blandness. It mostly avoids getting mired in this state during the first act because of the sheer whirlwind of events that transform Moss from a nobody into an almost-somebody in about 75 minutes. Lapine's writing leaves you little chance to breathe, and his staging makes dizzying use of Beowulf Boritt's constantly moving, turntable-mounted unit set, which fluidly morphs from tenements to offices and luxury apartments before your eyes and keeps the energy spinning. (Jane Greenwood's costumes and Ken Billington's lights are less overtly dynamic, but still good.)

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.


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