Writer-director James Lapine’s loving adaptation of Moss Hart’s legendary, and partly fictional, autobiography Act One is the kind of confection best not scrutinized too closely, lest you forget that you, and the audience around you, are having such a good time.
The tone is established early by the bare, spare opulence of Beowulf Borritt’s multi-level, turntable set, a dazzling combination of the literal and the representational, that encompasses all of the many locales—from a tenement walk-up flat in the Bronx to a playwright’s two level brownstone, to theatrical office and on and on—and by our two lead performers, who we meet also as narrators: Santino Fontana as the young adult Moss heading forward; and Tony Shalhoub as the established Moss, looking back. Mr. Fontana will only play the young Moss, but Mr. Shalhoub will only ever play Moss as a rememberer; for the rest he will assay two pivotal patriarchal figures: Moss’s working-class, cockney-accented father; and the playwright-director with whom he would collaborate famously, George S. Kaufman. Like the book, the play spans the period from Moss’s early years as a boy, being introduced to the theatre by his eccentric aunt Kate (Andrea Martin, who assays the symbolic mother figures, if not Moss’s actual mother) through the opening of his first Broadway play, the Hollywood satire Once in a Lifetime.
Because we’re as in love with the magic of the theatre as Mr. Lapine, his cast and his production team are, we allow sentiment to carry us. For Mr. Lapine’s adaptation is at times only a decently written condensation without seeming to have a deeper agenda than what already exists: the notion that dreams can come through with perseverance.
To be sure, it picks up and gains a certain amount of ballast once Kaufman enters the story and the legendary collaboration begins in earnest—it doesn’t hurt that Mr. Shalhoub’s Kaufman is as distinct and idiosyncratic as his elder Moss Hart is, without artifice, ruefully wistful. But there are scenes in which things are too stylistically heightened and shorthanded for authenticity or even verisimilitude within the style of the production; and ironically most of those are the ones set in theatres, when we’re watching scenes from the actual plays in question in rehearsal, or excerpted for brief glimpses in performance. Hart’s early solo out-of-town flop evidences none of the promise we’re told was in evidence on the page, it’s just laboriously silly and bad; and the bits of Once in a Lifetime we see are thoroughly unconvincing as glimpses of a career-maker.
But the legend behind Mr. Hart’s story, the affirmation of the spirit, is so pervasive and has such innate energy, that even in being told no more than competently, it maintains a feelgood momentum. You wish the flaws were not so transparent. And you sort of don’t care.
If Mr. Lapine has a real triumph here—and he does—it’s this: he took an iconic theatre book, which validates hopes and dreams, and turned it into an almost Dickensian theatre epic (not a coincidence; in an interview he said he took some inspiration from the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby) that tells us—no, that infuses us—with what we want to hear. No: with what we need to hear, every now and again.
And that earns all the forgiveness we helplessly bestow.
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