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.
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