|Amy Warren, Santino Fontana, Bob Stillman, and Will LeBow in a scene from “Act One.”|
The production of “Act One” now at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center does not make much of Moss Hart’s Jewishness, at least not overtly.
But the exuberant three-hour dramatic comedy places Hart in the intensely Jewish milieu of late 1920s Broadway, a world crammed with Jewish producers, writers, agents, and of course adoring theatergoers. It also sets Hart’s impoverished, hardscrabble family life in the Bronx against the exciting and fantastic realm of the theater, a fairyland where people are witty and charming in a decidedly un-Jewish way. “The theater makes it possible to be someone else,” says the adolescent Moss Hart at the beginning of the play, and that is just what Hart longs for.
Based on the bestselling 1959 autobiography by the legendary playwright/director and written and masterfully directed by James Lapine, “Act One” is an immensely charming valentine to the theater and the magical transformation found therein. Terrific performances by a talented cast as multiple characters adds to the fun, as playgoers try to spot who is playing whom. Andrea Martin is a particular delight as she cycles from Moss’s Aunt Kate, the woman who first introduced him to the theater, to super-aggressive agent Frieda Fishbein, to the cosmopolitan Beatrice Kaufman, the wife of Hart’s longtime writing partner, George S. Kaufman. With a nod to his television character Monk, Tony Shalhoub plays Kaufman as a quirky and brilliant victim of obsessive compulsive disorder, washing his hands constantly and avoiding physical touch. Shalhoub is hilarious as Kaufman, intimidating as Moss’s father, and touchingly effective as the older Moss Hart. Santino Fontana plays the younger Hart with all the energy and drive that it must have taken for a poor Bronx boy to break into that magical world.
Moss Hart was an extraordinary success, writing many hit plays with Kaufman that included “Once in a Lifetime,” “Merrily We Roll Along” (not the later Sondheim musical, of course, but the 1934 play), “You Can’t Take it With You,” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” He worked with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Kurt Weill, and Lerner and Loewe. He won many awards, including Oscars, Pulitzers, and Tonys, and wrote the screenplays for “Gentlemen’s Agreement” and “A Star Is Born.” Hart’s autobiography stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year and inspired thousands of theater lovers to pursue their dreams.
The play’s first act focuses on Moss’s boyhood, when he is “too theatrical for the Bronx”; his struggles with his father, who insists he go to work in a reeking tannery, and his first forays into the theater, which include a stint as a social director at a Catskills hotel. The play switches into high gear during the second act, when Hart and Kaufman struggle to get the script for “Once in a Lifetime” into production-worthy shape. Throughout this ordeal, Hart finds encouragement and support from a group of Jewish boys who are his friends, including Dore Schary (Will Brill), the eventual head of production at MGM studios. They are there with suggestions, career advice both good and bad, and a shared love of the glitz and camaraderie of show business.
Beowulf Boritt’s huge multilevel rotating set dominates the Beaumont stage, turning from the Hart tenement apartment to Kaufman’s glamorous home to the dingy office of the second-tier producer Augustus Pitou, where Hart gets his first show-business job as an office boy. This marvel of engineering changes costumes as deftly as the cast.
It long has been a mystery why Jews have been such devoted patrons of the Broadway stage. There is little in Jewish tradition – aside from the Purimspiel – that encourages playacting. Still, almost all American Jews of a certain age who grew up in or near New York City recall going to the theater from childhood on. It was much more affordable then, of course, and there was a large selection of new plays and musicals to see. Perhaps it is the sense of metamorphosis, the love of and facility with language, the general class-free-ness of the theater – a place where talent trumps background – that drew Jews to it.
Whatever the reason, it drew Moss Hart, and “Act One” celebrates the journey.