The sheets listing the settings that are taped to the wall of the Lincoln Center Theater rehearsal room read like a history of the American theatre in the early 20th century: "Jed Harris' hotel," "Sam Harris' office," "Kaufman house." What play could include scenes in so many dens of theatrical power?
The play version of "Act One," the classic theatrical memoir by playwright Moss Hart, that's what. Sixty-five years after it was published, Hart's memoir has been converted into a play by writer-director James Lapine. It seems only a natural destiny for a book considered by many to be one of the greatest books ever written about the ways and manners of the theatre, written by a man whose greatest desire, since a tender age, was to become a member of the business called show.
"I actually thought it would be a great movie," said Lapine on his original thinking upon reading the tome. "I kept it in the back of my mind." But when the opportunity arose to translate the work to the stage, he seized it. "I read it in my 40s. It's an old book. Twentysomethings don't really know the book anymore. The nice thing about this is it may introduce the book to a new generation."
When it was pointed out that it perhaps ironic that it had taken this long for "Act One" to be theatricalized, Lapine could only comment, "Lucky me."
The notion of crafting a play out of the memoir had, however, occurred long ago to Christopher Hart, one of Moss' children.
"I had been interested in getting a play version of my father's book for many years," he said. "I was looking around for the right guy." Following a lunch with Lapine, he knew he had found that man. "His relationship with Sondheim and his early success, having worked with his idol and mentor, mimicked my father's relationship with Kaufman. It seemed like a perfect fit."
In rehearsal, a three-hour, three-act play had been whittled down to two-and-a-half hours and two acts. Still, there was room in the drama for not one, but three Moss Harts: Matthew Schechter, who plays "Mossy" as a young boy; Santino Fontana, who portrays Hart as a striving young man; and Tony Shalhoub, as the elder Hart who wrote "Act One," looking back on his earlier life.
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