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BWW Review: A Love Letter to Theatre's Golden Age, ACT ONE Triumphs at the Good Theater

Portland's Good Theater is closing, what has been a highly adventurous and challenging fourteenth season, with a triumphant production of Act One, James Lapine's play based on the autobiography of Moss Hart. This nostalgic, subtly comic, and warmly touching work tells the story of a young Hart, learning to navigate the complex currents of writing a Broadway show in the 1930s. Told by two narrators, Lapine's play brings to life not only the Hart-George S. Kaufmann partnership, but a host of other colorful historical characters who helped to shape this golden age of the stage.

In many ways Act One is an insider's play, whose references to theatre legends and anecdotes will delight Broadway fans, but its thrust is far more universal. Hart in his autobiography, and Lapine for the stage, capture not only the complexities and pitfalls of aspiring to a career on the Great White Way, but also evoke the dark years of the Depression and the troubled context of Hart's boyhood. Lapine skillfully interweaves the narration with the action so that the flow is seamless and the grand scale of the times and events somehow captured with a disarming immediacy.

Much of the credit for this success at Good Theater must be attributed to director Brian P. Allen, who has cleverly sculpted the forty-four-character cast and multiple locales of the play into a tightly staged drama using fourteen actors and a single, flexible, bare bones set. That Allen had the vision to realize this would work not only for the intimate Good Theater space, but also for the script, is just one of the many strokes of his genius on display here. As a director, Allen's work is characterized by both subtlety and poignancy, impeccable taste, a firm grasp of and love for the theatre's storied history, as well as an uncanny sense of mésure - that ability to achieve just the right balance of tone and scale. All these talents come together in Act One, which glides lithely from the sweetly funny to the quietly wrenching, painting every other shade of laughter and emotion in between.

Steve Underwood's unit set (with Cheryl Dolan's contributions as scenic artist and Craig Robinson as technical director) uses the full depth of the tiny stage and artfully arranges a series of furniture props on several blond wood platforms to allow the best blocking. Justin Cote's period costumes are vibrant and colorful and help the actors quickly change roles. Iain Odlin uses the lighting design to enhance the pace and smooth the transitions, while frequently bathing the stage in a golden glow of memory.

The large cast is stellar. Anchoring the play is Michael Wood as Moss Hart, the fledgling writer. Wood brings a sensitivity and restrained, self-deprecating humor to the role, as well as the requisite boyishness and sense of wonder, and he is capable of the tender moments of Hart's family story. Mark Rubin creates a trio of memorable portraits as the older Hart, the playwright's bitter, unemployed father, and especially as George S. Kaufmann, Hart's creative partner on his first Broadway hit, Once in a Lifetime, and their later joint successes, The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can't Take It With You. In the last of these, he captures the physicality and quirkiness of Kaufmann with an endearing charm.

Young Halim Moldaver plays the boy Hart and then his younger brother Bernie with confidence and warmth. William Oliver Watkins vividly brings to life the jaded, alcoholic actor Charles Sidney Gilpin (with a brief impressive turn as the Emperor Jones), a slyly witty Langston Hughes, and a dignified agent, Max Siegel. Tony Reilly makes the most of several meaty character parts, among them the Harts' gruff tenant Mr. Borofsky, and the actors Priestly Morrison and Alexander Woollcott, who was to later star in Hart's Man Who Came to Dinner. Paul Haley provides some tongue-in-cheek moments as the producers Augustus Pitou, Jed Harris, and Sam Harris. The trio of the young playwright's friends are limned in the jaunty performances of Thomas Campbell (Eddie Chodorov), Conor Riordan Martin ( Irving Gordon), and Christopher Davis (Dore Schary). And each of these actors also contributes some other well-etched cameos.

Among the women in the cast, Lisa Stathopolos gives fine performances in all three of her juicy roles: a touching Aunt Kate, a feisty Frieda Fishbein, and an elegant, kind-hearted, knowing Beatrice Kaufmann. Amy Roche plays Hart's beleaguered mother Lillie with a dignified tenderness, before switching gears to incarnate a witty, self-possessed Dorothy Parker. Betsy Melarkey Dunphy ( Mrs.Borofsky, Rosenbloom, Phyllis Gilman), Allison McCall (Lady Caroline, Roz, Aline McMahon) and Meredith Lamothe (Belle, Hester, Edna Ferber) all demonstrate their versatility in these very different cameos.

Act One is an unqualified success for the Good Theater and an absolute must-see for Portland audiences. Not only does the production demonstrate the considerable artistic range of the company, but it takes the ensemble to another, larger-scale level of excellence. One can only marvel at what Brian P. Allen and his company have achieved in just a little over a decade!

Photographs courtesy of the Good Theater

Act One runs from April 6 - May 1, 2016, at the Good Theater, 76 Congress Street, Portland, ME, 207-885-5883

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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold