“Act One” Broadway at its Finest in a New Production
“Theatre is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child.”
Like many an unhappy child, in fact, like Moss Hart, I fell in love with the theater. I love movies, also, and quite often speak and blog about them. But Broadway theater offers something that even the greatest movie cannot. It is a live experience that will never be exactly the same from one night to the next. The audience is drawn into a fictional world unfolding in front of them in real-time. “Act One” Broadway debut is one of those productions that reminds me why I love theater so much. Every aspect of the production, from the amazing sets to the superb script to the sparkling performances by the cast is letter-perfect. Every moment was engrossing; every scene was unique.
“Act One” Broadway – From Book to Screen to Stage
I will admit that I was surprised to find out that “Act One” was a new play. I just assumed it was a revival. The memoir of Moss Hart is one of the most famous, influential and wonderful books ever written about a life in the theater. I remember reading it 40 years ago. In it, Moss Hart alternates between offering a wonderful memoir of his transformation from the son of immigrants living in a tenement in New York City to writing a hit Broadway play alongside the legendary George S. Kaufman with wry observations from the perspective of a man looking back on one of the great careers in theater. The much-loved book proved hard to film. One problem was the casting. George Hamilton was completely miscast as the Jewish immigrants’ son, Moss Hart. Hamilton is an actor of limited range under the best of circumstances. He was in way over his head. The second problem was that the script of the film merely centered on the biographical sections of the book. While those chapters are delightful and memorable, they don’t necessarily include the older Hart’s perspective. The (only) saving grace of the film was an excellent performance by Jason Robards as George S. Kaufman. The film was a flop. It was also a huge disappointment to the millions of fans of the book.
James Lapine had already proven himself a Broadway genius before trying to make a stage production out of “Act One.” His work with Stephen Sondheim created groundbreaking shows such as “Into The Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” and the vastly underrated “Merrily We Roll Along.” His challenge in bringing “Act One” to the Broadway stage was how to have both Moss Hart’s voices heard. His solution to the problem was innovative and deft. He had every member of the extraordinarily talented cast play multiple roles. Tony Shaloub, who definitely deserved his Tony nomination, plays three roles. He appears as George S. Kaufman. He appears as the father of Moss Hart. And he appears as an older Moss Hart, recounting the events we see unfolding before us.
Santino Fontana (most famous, I suppose, for “Frozen”) plays Moss Hart as a young man. Through brilliant acting, clever direction and lightning costume changes, Shaloub sometimes appears as the cantankerous George S. Kaufman arguing with the intimidated Moss Hart, then, a moment later, appears as Moss Hart standing next to his younger self. It sounds more confusing than it is. In person, it is a revelation of the ability of theater to transform reality. Andrea Martin, who has built an amazing Broadway career for herself, likewise plays three different roles. It is a testament to how many wonderful performances there were in Broadway plays this year that she did not earn a Tony nomination. Neither did Fontana. Both were superb.
“ACT ONE” BROADWAY: SHOWPIECE OF THE ART OF THE THEATER
Broadway audiences take for granted superb sets, costumes, and props. “Act One” Broadway blows away any expectation, no matter how lofty. Special mention must be made of the astounding sets created by Beowulf Boritt. Scenes change fluidly, dramatically and magnificently from a New York City tenement to an elegant penthouse to a rundown producer’s office. The fluidity is enhanced by Mr. Lapine’s direction, which has interesting bits of stage business happening as the sets revolve. The lighting, costuming and sound design are all likewise superb.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH THEATER
Moss Hart fell in love with theater at the young age. I suspect many of the people who will trek to Lincoln Center to see this ambitious new play did the same. “Act One” Broadway is a celebration of a life in the theater. The production gloriously displays the artistry of performers, designers, and creative personnel working at the height of their powers. And the script lovingly re-creates the laughter and revelations that Moss Hart brought to his autobiography. I’ve been attending Broadway theater for some 35 years. Rarely has a play touched me in quite the way that “Act One” did… reminding me of how it felt the very first time I walked in to a Broadway theater and sat in wonder…
To see the official listing for the play, click here.