Life imitates art in the new play, Act One, based on the early years of playwright and director Moss Hart. The show is written and directed by James Lapine and based on Hart’s autobiography of the same name. In the latter part of the production the audience observes Moss Hart’s collaboration with George S. Kaufman on what would eventually become his first major Broadway success. We are lurkers as the two writers spend over a year getting the play, Once in a Lifetime, just right. Act One of their 1930 creation is fine, but Acts Two and Three, we learn, are labored. Fortunately, for theater lovers, the two solved the dilemma and their co-writing effort became not only a big hit, but the first of many noteworthy writing partnerships. Unfortunately, (which may be too strong a word) the play, Act One, hasn’t solved its Act Two trouble, leaving the audience with a less then gratifying theatrical experience by the final curtain. Now don’t get me wrong I enjoyed the show, playing at Lincoln Center. It was just a letdown after an interesting and engaging beginning.
Act One does have a lot to offer, besides a generous slice of theater history. There are two captivating acting performances and an impressive set piece. Normally, when the scenic design is one of the highlights of a production there’s not much else the play has to offer, but the three-story, circular set piece of Act One is quite impressive in addition to the show’s other merits. All the scenes take place on the outside of the revolving structure—Moss Hart’s squalid childhood apartment, the multi-level living quarters of George S. Kaufman, offices, stages. The set allows for quick scene changes, sometimes leaving little time for the actors to hit their mark.
All the actors are marvelous in their roles, including Santino Fontana as the young Moss Hart, full of energy and unbridled eagerness. But it is Tony Shalhoub, playing multiple characters--the middle-aged Moss Hart, narrating parts of the show; Hart’s gruff, hot-headed father; and the idiosyncratic George S. Kaufman—that brings life to the play. His narrator is more matter-of-fact, but he infuses the other roles with distinctive personalities to make them believable and full-rounded. Andrea Martin, always a joy to see on stage, has a number of roles with the most prominent being Hart’s Aunt Kate. A proud and dignified woman of little means, she lives in the tiny apartment with the Hart family (and their boarders). Hart’s aunt had a profound influence on him as a youngster. Martin imbues her with just the right amount of aristocratic haughtiness.
Playwright/Director James Lapine has condensed Moss Hart’s biography to its essential core. He is much more successful setting up a dramatic narrative in the first half of the play. This probably has more to do with the variety of different characters and scenes then in Act Two when the focus is on the collaborative process between Hart and Kaufman. This part of the production is just not as compelling, which causes our interest to wane. As Director, Lapine does a fine job guiding the actors and incorporating the somewhat imposing set within the show, especially within the first half of the play. His issue, which ends up unsolvable, is livening up the problematic Act Two.
Act One, some great performances for a less then fulfilling show.