First Nighter: Moss Hart's "Act One" in Two Great, Big Acts

When theater veteran Moss Hart published his bestselling Act One in 1959, he packed a lot into it about his impoverished childhood and neophyte playwriting years with the already famous, successful and legendarily acerbic George S. Kaufman. James Lapine, who's adapted the chockfull memoir at the Vivian Beaumont, packs just as much into it--and what can seem like even more--on Beowulf Boritt's magnificent three-story revolving set.

Unlike Hart's title and Lapine's appropriation of it for his Act One treatment, the young fellow's life as shown here is in two acts. And it's proper that he divides it into two acts. In the first and as Boritt's construction turns and the older Hart (Tony Shalhoub) narrates, young Moss (Matthew Schechter) rankles under his stressed mother Lillie (Mimi Lieber) and testy father Barnett (Shalhoub), while, as the somewhat older Hart (Santino Fontana), dropping out of school to pursue theater-related jobs.

The second act of this valentine to show-business and to a young man's pluck follows Hart as he brushes off a disastrous first-play production in the hinterlands and starts turning his Once in a Lifetime script into something hit-worthy with the valuable guidance of now collaborator Kaufman (Shalhoub again, phew!) What the two endure, as observed and pampered by Kaufman's sympathetic wife Beatrice (Andrea Martin), includes episodes where their first two acts work like gangbusters, but they can't solve the third-act challenge. Until they do, and all dreams, as they don't always on Broadway, come true.

When I say Lapine packs plenty into his entertaining diversion about the dogged fulfillment of concentrated ambition, I mean plenty. When the traditional red curtain is initially pulled open, the playwright-director reveals a handful of actors performing a short excerpt from Oscar Wilde's weeper, A Woman of No Importance, while Hart's Aunt Kate (Martin) observes from a balcony seat so she can report to her eager nephew.

From there on, Lapine tosses in everything, including the kitchen sink, represented by the tense Harts-at-home scenes--where boarders are needed to help pay the rent--when Barnett eventually throws Aunt Kate out for accumulated infractions.

What else does Lapine stuff into his extravaganza? Hart's brief stint at a furrier's where Barnett has set him up and his office-boy position for second-rate theatrical producer Augustus Pitou (Will LeBow) are included. Run-ins with the celebrated, much hated Jed Harris (LeBow), who greets Hart completely naked, and the equally accomplished and much more well liked Sam Harris (Bob Stillman) are accorded close-ups. For some hearty laughs, there's the try-out of that first Hart opus, The Beloved Bandit,

Patrons get to see the initially one-sided, increasingly two-sided Kaufman-Hart writing sessions. During one of them, while the pair adjusts a Once in a Lifetime scene, three players (Lieber, Matthew Saldivar, Will Brill) play out the altered script's alterations. Beatrice Kaufman throws a party to introduce Hart to prominent friends like Edna Ferber, Langston Hughes, Alexander Woollcott and Aline MacMahon.

And the set goes round and round as both Shalhoub and Fontana keep the Hart bio firing across the footlights. It could be said Lapine's play is the kind for which the adjective "sprawling" was invented. At one point in the proceedings, someone wonders whether the trying-out Once in a Lifetime is a comedy or a satire, and something of the same tone confusion occasionally snakes through Lapine's two acts--not to mention the intermittent hint that too much is afoot to take in and that less might have seemed more.

Scratch that. All the too-muchness ultimately has the effect the Act One memoir had. It's the stage equivalent of a book you never want to end. Everything that Lapine has worked in to tell the heart-felt and heart-stirring tale feels right. If Lapine were to trim it (word has it that he already has done a certain amount), deciding what to delete would be exceedingly difficult. Leave it all in, and let the devil take the hindmost.

Leave it all in because of the opportunities offered the large cast on that whirligig set to do some mighty impressive whirligigging of their own. First and foremost, there's Shalhoub in his three roles that has to have given him (and his dresser) some unparalleled challenges. Just getting in and out of the Kaufman shock wig to return to the older Hart has to require great facility. How the real Kaufman and Hart would have enjoyed watching one man play them both is great fun to consider.

Fontana, last seen as Cinderella's Prince Charming, has an easier time of it but not that much less stage time to enact Hart's transition from eager wannabe to Kaufman sycophant to young playwright determined to click despite mounting odds--all of which he does with princely charm.

Martin, last seen in her Tony-winning Pippin role, doesn't have to swing upside down this time, but her swinging three characters is as deft as she always is. There's the affected Aunt Kate with her vestigial English accent, the sophisticated Beatrice Kaufman and Hart's aggressive agent Frieda Fishbein, whom SCTV fans will recognize as sister under the skin to the fabulous Edith Prickley.

The truth is there isn't a weak performance among the 22-member cast, many of whom have to be as busy backstage as on. Stillman, Chuck Cooper, Bill Army, Deborah Offner--all of them turn in slick, adept, fast characterizations. And congrats to director Lapine for organizing this circus.

Thank him, too, for rounding up--in addition to Boritt--lighting designer Ken Billington, sound designer Dan Moses Schreier and costumer Jane Greenwood, who's already announced for a special Tony this June. It's about time, since she's been nominated something like 14 times and never(!) won.

Incidentally, Lapine has taken at least a few liberties with Hart's tome. In the party sequence, someone mentions Irving Berlin's standard "Always" with its "I'll be loving you always" lyric. Lapine has Kaufman say to the guest, the lyric should have been "I'll be loving you Thursday." The anecdote usually goes that Kaufman made the remark directly to Berlin. In another party exchange, Hughes says to Edna Ferber, "You almost look like a man," and she replies, "So do you." The standard account has it that the two engaged in that sardonic give-and-take were Ferber and Noel Coward.

Full closing disclosure: Shortly after Act One, the book, appeared, and I'd hung on every word--as had every other reader with even the slightest interest in theater and the arts--I interviewed Moss Hart. He was exactly the suave, well-modulated gentleman whom Shalhoub impersonates. There is, however, one sartorial difference. Although Shalhoub has on a blue blazer and tie, Hart wore a blue blazer with an ascot for that interview--something he undoubtedly had never affected during his Bronx youth. I would have enjoyed Shalhoub's donning one as well.

But, to paraphrase Elaine Stritch, does anyone still wear an ascot?