BWW Reviews: ACT ONE Really Picks Up In Act Two
Ask a handful of avid theatre fans to name their favorite Broadway autobiography and Moss Hart's Act One is bound to be at the top of the list. Best known for his comedies written in collaboration with George S. Kaufman (You Can't Take It With You, The Man Who Came To Dinner, George Washington Slept Here) Hart's contributions to Broadway as a playwright (Lady In The Dark, As Thousands Cheer) and director (My Fair Lady, Camelot) made him one of American theatre's most prominent 20th Century artists.
His 1959 valentine to the theatre, the story of his modest Bronx childhood, his rise through the administrative end of show business and a fortuitous chance to work with the great Kaufman, has long been regarded as one of the best of the genre.
Playwright/director James Lapine's stage adaptation is appropriately thick with the kind of sentiment that warms the hearts of Broadway denizens; set in an era when well over a hundred plays and musicals would open every season. The episodic nature of the play works better as a love letter than as a drama, but Lapine's direction is a visual treat played with rich humor and affection by a terrific cast.
The role of Moss Hart is divided among three actors. Young Matthew Schechter plays him as a starry-eyed lad whose fascination with the theatre is nurtured by his Aunt Kate (Andrea Martin as one of those wonderfully eccentric ladies of the audience). Commenting on these memories is Hart as a young man (Santino Fontana) and as a seasoned celebrity (Tony Shalhoub).
Shalhoub also plays Hart's overworked father who resents Kate's extravagance while she lives under the roof he pays for. When the warm and eager Fontana takes over the main role, Hart has his first office job working for a touring company producer and even gets a taste of playwriting with a quickly-written piece that shuts down on its way to Broadway.
The first act curtain line is bound to choke up anyone who has ever saved their pennies to afford a cheap balcony ticket, but the story really picks up in the second half, which covers the first collaboration between Kaufman and Hart, as the senior playwright takes on the task of helping to punch up the young writer's newest effort, a Hollywood satire that would become the team's first hit, Once In A Lifetime.
Shaloub is hilariously exacting as the fastidious Kaufman who is frustrated by Hart's hero-worship and tries to train him to be an equal partner who can freely disagree with him. A familiarity with the final product will help audience members keep track as the pair expands on the characters' relationships and sharpen up the jokes. Though the comedy doesn't seem to live up to its potential in pre-Broadway tryouts, a newly confident Hart proposes major revisions that turn the fortunes of the play, and team, around.
Martin returns as sharp-tongued agent Frieda Fishbein and as Kaufman's elegant wife, who helps introduce Hart to his new world by throwing a cocktail party and introducing him to friends like Langston Hughes (Chuck Cooper), Harpo Marx (Matthew Saldivar), Dorothy Parker (Amy Warren) and Edna Ferber (Deborah Offner).
Beowulf Boritt's enormous carousel set keeps transitions in motion as the settings change from a cramped Bronx apartment to midtown offices to the stylish Kaufman home to various theatre locales.
As a backstage adventure, Act One should have a special appeal for those who envision their own future rise to Broadway success and those who remember the beginning of their climb.