Sunday, May 4, 2014

Act One (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

If you love theater, I don’t see how you can fail to be enchanted by James Lapine’s dramatization of playwright/director Moss Hart’s legendary autobiography, “Act One,” which traces Hart’s life from a star-struck kid in a Bronx tenement through his first collaboration with established playwright George S. Kaufman.

The action plays out on Beowulf Boritt’s wondrously versatile revolving set and is splendidly outfitted by Jane Greenwood.

Hart is played superbly by the ever engaging Santino Fontana with Tony Shalhoub as the older Hart looking back on his life, with Matthew Schechter as youngster Hart (also excellent). The incredibly versatile Shalhoub also plays Hart’s father, and Kaufman.

The early interaction between the novice playwright and his mentor – an eccentric germaphobe – is portrayed most entertainingly. And Lapine has succeeded to a remarkable degree in making the creative process, as Hart and Kaufman rewrite their first play together, “Once in a Lifetime,” dramatically viable.

Andrea Martin is marvelous as Hart’s theater-loving Aunt Kate who lived with the family until Hart’s father ordered to leave the house for her intrusive and penny-pinching ways (the play’s most dramatic scene). And she returns, flamboyantly, as Hart’s agent Frieda Fishbein, and then she's the picture of graciousness as Kaufman’s wife Beatrice who eases young Hart into the Kaufman’s exalted circle of friends (i.e. Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, etc.).

Most of the other principals – Chuck Cooper, Will LeBow, Mimi Lieber, Bob Stillman, etc. – also perform double or triple duty, without undue confusion for the audience, no small feat.

The play clocks in at nearly three hours, but there’s nary a dull moment with director Lapine’s assured pacing. The result is a far more enriching experience than the Hollywood film – adapted and directed by Dore Schary -- released in 1963 with George Hamilton as Hart and Jason Robards as Kaufman. (It occasionally pops up on TCM.)

(Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street; or
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