Something new and wonderful has been added to the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center – a gorgeous, traditional, translucent red show curtain trimmed in gold for its production of James Lapine’s adaptation of the Moss Hart 1959 autobiography ACT ONE – a celebration of his life that is done magnificently under Mr. Lapine’s direction and starring Santino Fontana and Tony Shalhoub as the younger and older Hart respectively. There is also an even younger Mossy played by Matthew Schechter. It takes three excellent actors to fill Mr. Hart’s shoes admirably as he was a force of nature who loved the theater and became a world famous writer, director and bon vivant.
But it didn’t come easy. His success was a combination of passion for the theater instilled in him by his theatrical Aunt Kate (Andrea Martin) his obsessive reading, his desire to do anything to get near a stage, his need to escape the poverty of his English-Jewish parents in the Bronx, some good connections (the Confederation of Office Boys), his obvious potential, his hunger for food and fame, his persistence and his life changing collaboration with the famous and quirky George S. Kaufman (Tony Shalhoub) on ONCE IN A LIFETIME – a very lucky break indeed.
But Moss Hart made his own luck. Pursuing his dream with vigor and not letting anything or anyone distract him from his ultimate goal of being a successful writer. It seems like a charmed life. But it did have many ups and downs. His persistence ultimately wins out. One couldn’t make this up. It would be hard to believe. But it actually happened and is brought to vivid life in this perfect production highlighting the years 1914-1930.
As the play begins the curtain parts to reveal the mammoth and brilliant stage set design by Beowulf Boritt – a large, multi-tiered turntable that serves as the many locations – Hart’s home, the theatrical office where he was a clerk, a theatre and Kaufman’s sumptuous apartment – among the many others where life continues to go on as Moss Hart’s story unfolds narrated by both the young, naïve and ambitious Santino and the confident, urbane Shalhoub – who does triple duty here.
Not only is he the older Hart but he portrays the cockney accented father of Mossy and the fastidious Kaufman – earning him a Tony nomination as best leading actor in a play – beating out Santino only by a split hair. They are both excellent.
As is the phenomenal Andrea Martin who not only plays Aunt Kate but Frieda Fishbein (Hart’s pushy agent) and the wise and elegant Mrs. Kaufman – Beatrice – wearing lovely dresses designed by Jane Greenwood. Ms. Martin is a delight whenever she is on stage.
Time appears to fly by in this almost three hour production thanks to the set and direction by Mr. Lapine who has done a great job in condensing Mr. Hart’s tome.
The second act deals with the odd couple collaboration of Hart and Kaufman – the apprentice and the master at work and their attempt – attempts – to bring to fruition a successful ONCE IN A LIFETIME that opened to raves at the Music Box Theatre in 1930.
As we view a troublesome scene from the satirical comedy they are writing revisions elsewhere and as they change the script the actors change the lines in the play. Back and forth. It’s a brilliant touch. Both as writer and director.
You don’t have to be an aficionado of the theatre to love this production. Anyone who has a dream, who has the hunger, the desire to succeed in whatever will be given enlightenment and encouragement by the exemplary and ultimately successful life story of Moss Hart. Persistence is the key word. That and potential.
Photos: Joan Marcus
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