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NEW YORK – Beowulf Boritt‘s ingenious set for Act One is a multi-story marvel, a revolving warren that disgorges countless different locations, including a Bronx tenement, a swanky Manhattan apartment, a furrier’s warehouse, busy theater district offices, train compartments, rehearsal rooms, and of course, stage after stage. But it’s problematic in a work fundamentally about the magic of the theater that all the magic is confined to the design department. Condensing into play form Moss Hart‘s 1959 autobiography – a peach among American theater memoirs – was probably an impossible task. However, that doesn’t soften the arduousness of sitting through writer-director James Lapine‘s botched attempt at it.
Lincoln Center Theater has poured considerable resources into this project, evident in the elaborate set, in Jane Greenwood‘s elegant period costumes and in the large ensemble cast. That and Lapine’s obvious reverence for the source material make it dispiriting to report that the material in this retelling is lifeless – an insipid dose of theatrical nostalgia lacking in thematic weight or genuine feeling. At close to three hours, it’s also bloated for no good reason. The subject matter is certainly rich in potential, but to borrow Hart’s words, “Nothing in the theater is for certain.”
As a playwright, Hart teamed with George S. Kaufman to write some of the most successful comedies of the 1930s, among them Once in a Lifetime, You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner. He collaborated on musicals with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Kurt Weil and Ira Gershwin, and directed the 1956 Broadway premiere of My Fair Lady, a legendary production that ran more than six years.
To anyone with a fascination for Broadway lore, Hart’s career was a monumental one and his life a charmed rags-to-riches backstage fairytale. That story was told with wit, humility and a disarming sense of wonder in his influential book, a bestselling instant classic.
A screen adaptation of Act One came out in 1963, two years after Hart’s death. Directed and co-scripted by one of his former theatrical office-boy cronies, Dore Schary, it starred George Hamilton as Hart and Jason Robards as Kaufman. The film concentrates on the beginnings of their creative partnership and is memorable primarily for Robards’ sharp characterization.
Lapine’s stage treatment also focuses extensively on the long and difficult birth of Hart and Kaufman’s debut collaboration, Once in a Lifetime, offering amusing insights into the creative process and the trial-and-error adventure of fine-tuning a comedy for Broadway. Unlike the movie, however, it also attempts to gallop through the subject’s early life – his poor, English-Jewish immigrant family background, his truncated education, his premature entry into the workforce, and the life-changing discovery at a young age, through his dotty Aunt Kate, of the joys of the theater.
But Lapine seems unable to make the hard choices about what to remove. As a play, Act One remains entirely imprisoned on the page from its earliest scenes. As soon as you appoint two actors to play Hart – as an eager youth looking forward (Santino Fontana) and a wiser adult looking back (Tony Shalhoub) – and give them dueling narrator chores, you’re in trouble. Every time one of them steps forward to spout another line of cumbersome linking dialogue (“Lo and behold, the next morning…”) any theatrical air the play has managed to inhale quickly escapes.
Another key problem early on is the characterization of Aunt Kate in Andrea Martin‘s hammy performance. In the book she’s an incurable romantic, charming in her cultivated eccentricity. Onstage she’s a selfish snob, waltzing off to matinees while sniffing disdainfully at the paying boarders, and refusing to contribute financially to the struggling household or to lend a hand to her drudge of a sister (Mimi Lieber). When Moss’ Cockney father (Shalhoub again, in one of three roles) kicks her out, you’re on his side, not that of his distraught young son (Matthew Schechter).
It’s the evocative detail Hart brings to his humble roots that makes his step-by-step rise to show-biz glory so entertaining. But those fine brushstrokes are missing in Lapine’s production, coarsened into mostly unfunny light comedy that undermines the reality of the family’s poverty. Or as Hart describes it, “the grim smell of actual want.”
Martin fares better later on as the socially poised Beatrice Kaufman. But a scene in which she hosts a cocktail party whose guests include such luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx, Edna Ferber, Langston Hughes, Aline MacMahon and Alexander Woolcott seems to belong in another play. Or nowhere. Those name-dropping appearances unfortunately echo the shallow impressions made even by more central figures in Hart’s life, including the man himself.
Fontana (the voice of Hans in Disney’s Frozen), as always, has an appealing stage presence, but his characterization is entirely generic – a driven, likable young man whose commitment to succeed strengthens with each acrid taste of failure. While the multitasking Shalhoub is given little to do as the older Moss and his father, he mines welcome humor out of his portrayal of the fastidious, soft-spoken George, even if too much of the performance is about the celebrated playwright’s OCD neuroses. The closest Lapine comes to finding some heart in the material is in the gradual bonding of these two – the wide-eyed novice and the world-weary Broadway eminence.
Sadly, however, almost every line uttered in frustration or despair when early drafts or out-of-town tryouts of Once in a Lifetime are not working applies equally to the show we’re watching. “It’s a tiring play for the audience to sit through,” says producer Sam Harris (Bob Stillman). “That damn stage is so full of actors and scenery and costumes that they don’t have a chance to catch their breath and listen to the play.” If Lapine had paid attention to those words and sat down with an editor’s hat on to do some serious reshaping, it might have been a step toward a more worthy adaptation.
Venue: Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York (runs through June 15)
Cast: Santino Fontana, Tony Shalhoub, Matthew Schechter, Andrea Martin, Mimi Lieber, Deborah Offner, Will LeBow, Steven Kaplan, Bill Army, Charlotte Maier, Amy Warren, Chuck Cooper, Bob Stillman, Matthew Saldivar, Will Brill, Laurel Casillo, Bob Ari, Noah Marlowe, Greg McFadden, Lance Roberts, Jonathan Spivey, Wendy Rich Stetson
Director-playwright: James Lapine, based on the autobiography by Moss Hart
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Music: Louis Rosen
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater
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