Act One, which bowed April 17 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, is a play with serious second-act trouble. The trouble is that, like all good things, it has to end.
For anyone with an abiding affection for the magic of stagecraft, this adaptation of Moss Hart's 1959 con amore account of how he got a toehold on the theatre world is compulsively and contagiously riveting. Civilians with less stars in their eyes could conceivably find this intense exploration of the creative process — open Hart surgery, if you will — slow, arduous and uphill, but that's why they call 'em civilians.
Right at the top of the play, one of the Moss Harts — there are three of them cart-wheeling through this grease-painted cavalcade — declares unabashedly, "The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifetime infection." On future investigation, he identifies the malady as "that wonderful mixture of emotion where one wants to laugh and cry at the same time" — a very apt and precise description of the vibes this show gives off.
Adapter-director James Lapine has concocted an intimate epic out of this theatrical gospel. It's splashed across the vast Vivian Beaumont stage and populated with what plays like the proverbial cast of thousands but actually is only 22 hyperactive actors, all but one of whom is double — or triple — or quadruple-cast for the occasion.
At center-stage is the twirling world of theatre, designed by Beowulf Boritt — a huge Rubik's Cube of staircases and doorways that lead from tenement to penthouse. Beyond the purview of Act One lay Broadway glory and even, literally, Camelot. But, basically, this is the beginner's Bible — a personal close-up on the art of making it.
It breaks down into The Three Ages of Moss — the 11-year-old (Matthew Schechter) who is introduced to, and instantly infected with, the theatre by his in-house Auntie Mame; the young man (Santino Fontana) finding his way in this strange land, starting with a bottom-wrung producer who calls him Mouse and rising to collaboration with the great George S. Kaufman; and, finally, the established artist (Tony Shalhoub) who looks back over where he's been, puts it down on paper and ties it with a bow.
"I love the book because I get to hear my dad's voice," admitted Christopher Hart. "All the plays he wrote, he was writing characters and other people, but in this one thing, he was himself, and it sounded like him. I'm a director as well as a producer, and, whenever I do one of his shows, I pull out 'Act One,' and read to the actors on the first day of rehearsal, give them a chance to hear what he sounded like. It's so beautiful to hear him come through the pages of that book. This play verges on that because, essentially, it does the same thing. I'm very emotionally connected to it.
"It's hard to translate a book into a play, simply because a book is prose and a play is dialogue. I had this experience once when I wrote an adaptation of Swifty Lazar's autobiography. It was very funny and very clever, and there were a lot of wonderful lines, but it wasn't a play. I thought it was going to be very easy, and it wasn't.
"That's why I think James did an amazing job. I sorta picked him. We talked about it a long time before he agreed to do it. I chose him because there's a similarity between his plays with Stephen Sondheim and my father's plays with Kaufman. There was a sense of 'What was it like to work with your idol?' They were both in the same boat. The fact that I was very moved by the play is a tribute to James' ability to stay true to the book. There are so many great stories in that book it's hard to winnow it. Without trying to do any kind of mimicry, he got the sensibility of it."
One of Hart's acting classmates in college wound up bringing the play to the stage — Andre Bishop, the producing artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. He encountered the book at age 10, and the dye was cast. "What's great about the book is that it means so much to so many people," Bishop said, "and, hopefully, the play will bring a new generation of young people into the theatre. I always thought Moss had been planning to write 'Act Two,' but Chris said no. He said Moss knew the most exciting part of any career was getting there. 'Act Two' would be 'Then I did this... '"
Lapine, slow to rise to the bait, was happy he did. "It was a perfect show to do with Andre, whom I've worked with for 30 years," he said. "He, too, saw the possibility of indoctrinating a new generation, "but I'm not a message guy — the kind of guy who says, 'This is what I want people to take away from it' because, with a good piece of theatre, people take away from it what they want to take away from it. When you do something good, it can mean different things to different people."
First question to Fontana: "What did the prostitute say?" And, like any theatre-savvy guy who has seen Elaine Stritch's one-woman show twice, he knew the answer: "It's not the work. It's the stairs." He is the one person in the cast who get to play just one person, but this is hardly a light sentence, given the exhausting number of stairs that he has to zip up and down at every performance. The pounds are melting away.
"This is, in a way, a kind of Cinderella story," suggested Broadway's erstwhile Prince Charming. "It's about a guy who comes from nothing, is determined to make it — so determined to get what he wants that he doesn't give up. He's an emotional kid who scraps his way through to finally writing this hit play at a very early age.
"I get the lucky job of taking on Moss when his father makes him drop out of school to make money for the family up until he is able to take his family out of their terrible housing situation — in a cab — from the Bronx. What a joy to play!
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"He has a lot of heart, which is actually really true. He is the emotional center of the play, with Kaufman being cerebral and distant. Hart had the heart of that duo."
Shalhoub has the best hat trick of the evening, playing Kaufman and Hart, plus in his few idle moments Hart's life-battered working-class father. This stunt comes off smoother than you might think, thanks to some lightning-fast costume changes. He moves with gazelle-like grace, sliding in and out as the older Hart who narrates the story. His hilarious take on the grouchy, germ-fighting, cynical Kaufman consumes the second act, bouncing the character off the fresh-faced, unworldly Fontana.
"One thing that's fun to play," he said, "is Kaufman's impatience with service people. He was always irritated with waiters. He appreciated that they were underpaid and overworked, but he just didn't have a lot of patience for bad service. When one of the waiters at the Algonquin died, he said, 'God must have caught his eye.'"
He cracked several books on Kaufman and Hart and got some first-hand accounts. "I talked to his daughter, Anne Kaufman Schneider — she's amazing — and Hart's children, Chris and Kathy, have been very present and very helpful in getting us material."
Andrea Martin, a two-time Tony winner for Featured Actress, has set herself up for a third with three delightful, and radically different, portrayals of the most influential females in young Hart's life: The eccentric aunt who sparked his interest in theater; a tough, hip-swinging lady agent; and the elegant, stylish Mrs. Kaufman. (Look out for the aunt's poignant underpinnings — they're unexpectedly heartbreaking.)
"She really went out on a limb for those," beamed her proud director. "She was so brave, really brave. I think she's just amazing, and I know it was hard for her."
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Martin, who won the Tony last year as Pippin's high-flying granny, won her first working in the same Lincoln Center rehearsal room and at the Beaumont Theatre, standing out in that clown car of character actors tearing through My Favorite Year.
"This is not a musical, but it feels just as big," she said. "It's one of the few plays that I've done in New York. For some reason, I keep gravitating toward musicals."
Mimi Lieber, who did a little choreography on the show, warms the turbulent homefront as Hart's mother, "but," she added, "the gossip columnist is the most fun."
Could it be that buoyant personality that brings life-plus to the characters she plays? Martin only gets to flash her comedy chops with the agent role. "Moss' aunt was a pivotal part of his life: She so loved the theatre herself and offered him a world of magic and glamour when he grew up in such poverty. And Mrs. Kaufman represented a different view of the theatre world. I think it was rather a full-time job taking care of George Kaufman. She was a socialite. Like so many people in that era she gave a lot of parties, saw a lot of theatre, entertained a lot, frequented the Algonquin Roundtable. Really, how she serves the book and this play, is how steady and pragmatic and practical and grounded she was to her husband's idiosyncracies."
Playwrights Paul Rudnick, A. R. Gurney Jr., Alfred Uhry, John Weidman and William Finn — all of whom have toiled with distinction at Lincoln Center — led, as well they should, the big parade of opening-night celebs. Everybody was whisked off in a caravan of buses to the Plaza Hotel for food, fun and the usual post-show revelry.
Donna Murphy, one of several who confessed to shedding copious salty tears over the play, said she's in the middle of shooting a television project, then off to France.
Alexandra Silber, who was the "she" to Fontana's "me" in a wonderful Caramoor revival of She Loves Me last year, was very much in his camp on opening night.
Dan Sullivan, Lieber's director-husband, will world-premiere Daniel Margulies' latest, The Country House, with Blythe Danner at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. June 3 before addressing John Lithgow's King Lear here at Central Park's Delacorte.
More news from the West Coast: Michael Wilson said he's in pre-production for a new Elizabeth Egloff play, Ether Dome (July 13-Aug 10) at the La Jolla Playhouse before taking Horton Foote's The Old Friends to Houston with Betty Buckley.
Jack Cummings III, who helmed a successful revival of I Remember Mama that closes April 20 at The Gym at Judson, asided that he lifted a few scenes from the George Stevens-Irene Dunne movie of 1948 that weren't in John van Druten's play.
Other first nighters: Jed Bernstein, directors Bartlett Sher and Jack O'Brien, publisher Joe Armstrong, Joan Rivers, Richard Easton, screenwriter Susan Rice and Victor Garber.