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New York City Theater

"Act One"
Vivian Beaumont Theater

It’s Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day and Christmas. “Act One,” the nostalgic whirlwind of a play lovingly adapted by James Lapine from the classic Moss Hart autobiography is every holiday rolled into one. A funny and endearing work about a combustible family as well as a goal ignited, the production covers the years leading up to one of the American theater’s most legendary careers.

It begins with a mother, a father and their son. Brought up in near poverty in the Bronx, Moss Hart had a mom who adored him and a dad who seemed not to.

He also had Aunt Kate. She may have been both eccentric and pretentious, but her saving grace was her love for the theater. Telling Moss about her adventures, she fired his imagination. Later, when he was 11, taking him with her to those uplifting experiences in those wondrous playhouses gave the talented boy a path to follow.

He soon learned that “the theater is not so much a profession as a disease” -- an infection he welcomed. Starting as an office boy, he moved quickly, writing a play that flopped in Rochester, working in the Catskills, eventually meeting the likes of the terrifying Jed Harris, wise-cracking Dorothy Parker, sour Alexander Wolcott, supportive Sam Harris. And, most significantly, George S, Kaufman, with whom he would collaborate on his first smash, “Once in a Lifetime.”

A quirky character afraid of germs, Kaufman hated to be touched (his constant hand-washing is hilarious). But he’s kind, generous and respectful of Hart’s talent. When in the somewhat less fascinating second act of “Act One,” Kaufman gives Hart a hard time, the younger man realizes the end result is what counts. “No detail is too small,” says Hart about Kaufman’s attentions. “It’s tedious and exhilarating, too.”

Lapine’s own first act of the play we’re seeing, is filled with drive even though it betrays its origins as a memoir of incidents. Theater is tighter, more sustained, less formless than books. Yet, the basic material is so moving, so invigorating, that dramatic faults are brushed aside. As his own director, Lapine speeds the evening along, helped by Beowulf Boritt’s turntable set which contains an amalgam of lives and incidents.

Lapine employs two narrators, both Hart at various ages. They’re shortcuts but handled with grace and skill by the ever-charming, energetic Santino Fontana as the young Hart and Tony Shalhoub (of “Monk” fame) as the older playwright. Instead of distancing the audience from what’s happening, they actually draw us into their world. We live the wonder.

Shalhoub, who has become an actor’s actor, his gestures, timing and delivery all masterful, also plays Hart’s irascible father and the touchy, scowling Kaufman. The irrepressible Andrea Martin is not only the loving Aunt Kate but a tough agent and Kaufman’s no-nonsense wife.

It’s a top-notch cast all around, making sure not only that we have a good time but we see them as real people. Emerging from the imagination of the theater into the harshness of the world, we understand the intrusion of sad reality. Yet it’s been worth it, worth gaining, even for moments, the enlightenment and excitement with which we’ve been gifted.

--David A. Rosenberg
May 8, 2014

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