Streaming James Lapine’s stage adaptation of Moss Hart’s memoir, Act One is a beautiful dive into a pool of true love and theatrical devotion. It’s filled to the edge with the clear blue water of the unexplainable and never-ending devotion to the creation of art on a stage, and the unbelievable imagination that is at its core. Moss Hart is the ultimate aspiring playwright at the center of this theatre junkie’s dream and it blossoms fully, requiring three actors to fulfill the task of taking us through his passionate rise to fame. In the center of his theatrical overripe heart, Act One of Act One is stuffed with piles and pages of historical exposition, leading us through Hart’s harrowing and dismal childhood, where he grew up in Bronx poverty with two parents who could not see the artist that lives inside their child. The only one that sprinkles the theatrical glitter and dust on his vivid imagination is his Aunt Kate, played lovingly by the always wonderful Andrea Martin (RTC’s Noises Off), who spends her money on cheap balcony seats, even as her sister and her family struggle to put food on the table. It’s a classic storm of misaligned upbringing, one that most who venture into the professional world of Broadway can thoroughly understand. To the credit of very brave Lapine, that well-trodden artistic road is most uniquely paved from beginning to end with genuine adoration, giving us a hero to root for, and a few authentic artists to adore.
Like almost everything in the first half of Act One (streaming now on Lincoln Center‘s YouTube channel), the characters and situations play out in a wild rotating whirl, passing from one almost stereotypical moment to the next with a speed that feels almost as noisy as what is described later on as the one fault of Hart’s play at the tail-end center of this play. As the magnificent set-piece turns through time as elegantly as one could imagine, designed with an expert eye for unique situations and never-ending movement by Beowulf Boritt (RTC’s Bernhardt/Hamlet) – for which he won the 2014 Tony Award, the series of entrances and exits that bring the charming Moss Hart to life fly by like beautiful winged creatures in a magical Times Square. Finding glory but exiting stage left before we can truly become attached, Lapine finds a way, most magically, to establish within all this chaos, a young hero’s wide-eyed love for his Aunt Kate and the gloriousness of the theatre world he so wants to live in.
It’s a bit of a wild twisty run-around as we watch the young Hart grow up tall and energized alongside his trio of loyal friends/office boys, played adoringly by Bill Army, Will Brill, and Steven Kaplan, but it’s also a little hard to stay perfectly tuned into the tale throughout Act One of Act One. That is if it were not for the stunningly engaging performance of Santino Fontana (Broadway’s Tootsie) as the young and vibrant Moss Hart (there’s also a younger and older version to, that add depth and meaning to the journey). Finding emotional connection in the sixteen years of Hart’s life in 90 short minutes, the game is on for this talented actor to keep us leaning in and on his side. The young outsider, packed into a Bronx tenement with parents who barely notice his discomfort, Moss struggles work-day-in and school-education-out against all the odds in a stinking furrier job that drains him on almost every emotional level. That is before he stumbles, almost too meet/cute sweetly, into the small-time office boy job assisting a two-bit producer of touring shows. From then on, Fontana’s Hart swirls and swings with hopeful theatrical energy that is thoroughly infectious.
It’s not long before his trial-by-fire inside his first play, The Beloved Bandit, flopping greenly and dynamically during its Rochester tryout, and the thrown-together musical revues up in the Catskills, bring him to that illustrious moment when he runs up the stairs to finalize a deal with the great Sam Harris, partner of George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin, to produce his newly crafted play, Once in a Lifetime with the leading hitmaker, George S. Kaufman, as co-author and director. It’s a moment of heart-warming joy as Hart soon after finds himself standing alone in Times Square, stunned and overwhelmed, taking it all in with an intense sense of stunned wonder, as the electric signs of the Broadway theatres drop in and shine brightly. It’s a perfect Broadway ending for the overly busy first act of Act One, but it leaves us wanting to know a whole lot more of the man who will become the famous and successful Broadway writer and director, and the play that will lead us to him.
Evoking the magical love for making theatre, Act Two of Act One is gripping and majestically funny. It is truly where the juice and the excitement of the piece finally find the earth to grow up big and strong. Within the tumultuous and seemingly impossible rendering of Once in a Lifetime’s journey from out-of-town tryouts to Broadway, Hart’s story grabs hold of an emotional drive rather than just pure exposition, building the energy scene by beautifully crafted scene. We watch with intent excitement the trials and failures of his second big play, as they endlessly try to find the fixes it needs just days before opening in New York. It finds the thrilling gas to propel itself forward, but Act One really finds its robust flavor in the artistic endeavors of the enormously talented Tony Shalhoub (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), who brings a twinkle to his three-pronged performance that surprises even this loving fan.
As the older Hart looking back, he brings loving care to his narration, and as Hart’s father, Barnett, he turns him into something quite the opposite. The hat trick is impressive, but it is in his performance of the eccentric George S. Kaufman, the writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1937 play You Can’t Take It with You(alongside Moss Hart) that Shalhoub finds his true hypnotic glory, transforming himself quickly into a sharp complicated litany of oddball characteristics that give this man a transfixing glory that you can’t comprehend, nor look away from. In the autobiographical source material book, Act One, Hart portrays Kaufman as “morose and intimidating“, uncomfortable with any expressions of affection “in life or on the page.” And in that context, we can’t help but watch and be amazed as he, in one deliciously well-done scene, prepares himself to work on a script with the excited young Hart watching nervously nearby. He clears his throat, mumbling a performative masterclass of sounds and facial renderings that elevates. Then, without warning, he grabs hold of a pencil and crosses out two whole pages, laughing as he does it. We watch as closely as the confused Fontano’s Hart does, wondering and waiting with anticipation to know what all of that meant and means to their collaboration. It’s genius, and compelling, and together these two create a certain type of sensational magic and engagement that propels the whole piece to its joyous end.
The two who play Hart (as well as the young third Hart portrayed by Matthew Schechter) dazzle but one can’t dismiss the legendary Martin who not only endears us instantly with her Aunt Kate, but finds hilarity as Moss’ theatrical agent, Frieda Fishbein, as well as, with loving glamour, Beatrice Kaufman, the wife and play-whisperer to the legendary George S. Kaufman. The depth and intricate portrayals created by this genius shine majestically, as she finds tender attachment with Moss at every stage of the game, and delivers up these characters as wisely and as strongly as that first unforgettable balcony laugh. The rest of the strong cast delivers their characters forth with perfectly timed professionalism, finding unique moves at every turn of the majestic three-tiered set. Whirling around and around, the detailed creations are astonishing, as are the period costumes which are all authentically perfect down to the last silhouette by Jane Greenwood (MTC’s The Little Foxes), the spot-on lighting by Ken Billington (NYCC Encores’ The Grand Hotel), and the spectacularly voiced sound design by Dan Moses Schreier (Broadway’s Gary). It doesn’t surprise anyone who is used to the high level of creative art and design delivered by the Lincoln Center Theater but even held up against the high bar of that theatre, this production sparkles in its dynamic rotation.
Once in a Lifetime tryouts fly and fail in Atlantic City and Brighton Beach, but the energy and commitment to perfection shine on, in both Kaufman and Moss’ in and out dedication to the task, and in the Lincoln Center Theater‘s highly entertaining production. We watch with bated breath as Moss Hart stands waiting for the word on the Broadway opening of Once in a Lifetime, and we see the weight of the dream sit squarely on his back. And we join with him as energetically and excitedly as Aunt Kate’s first trip down the center aisle to watch a play in the orchestra. Lapine and company have crafted a glorious journey from an equally loving memoir, that reminds us of the love and devotion that go into creating art on a stage, and the people who labor on to make it all happen. It was a story I did not know all that well, but I’m glad to have been invited to stand alongside these great craftsmen and hear this slice of Broadway history. It’s not perfection, but it is filled to the brim with a whole lot of love for this crazy thing we call theatre. It possesses that unexplainable magical energy that I am missing so much during these crazy COVID19 times, and I can’t wait to once again take in a bit of that theatrical essence once again from pretty much any seat in that house I so love.
And don’t forget to donate to the Lincoln Center Theater or a theatre company near you that you love. They need all the help we can give them, especially now, as we peer out thewindow like Radcliffe’s Clov in The Old Vic’s Endgame, wondering if it is safe to go outside once again. I just wish I got to see LCT’s The Nance, as that is one show I’ve never seen and have always wanted to. Let’s hope it gets rescheduled soon on LCT’s YouTube channel.
For more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com