Moss Hart’s autobiographical “Act One” was an instant best seller when it was published by Random House in 1959, and it has remained in print ever since. The book was critically acclaimed and remained on the N.Y.Times best-seller list for forty one weeks, which was remarkable, particularly for a theatrical memoir.I remember reading it when it first appeared, and I relished it, for it was vivid, specific, ripe with rich prose, bright dialogue and well defined characters. In it, Mr. Hart told a true Horatio Alger rags to riches story of a boy determined to change direction for the life he was handed, and he told it well enough to have his readers rooting for him all the way.
James Lapine’s play, based on Mr. Hart’s book, is a noble attempt to try to move it to the stage, but it fails on almost all counts. For its story is a familiar one, and the play version captures little or none of the language or characterization of the book, both of which made it very particular which in turn made it universally appealing.
Despite the use of 22 actors to play some 40 roles, despite a massive set that fills the vast stage of the Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center across the entire wide proscenium and the equally deep floor, the total effect is of a giant shell covering very little. There are virtually no characters onstage, there are only caricatures, whereas Hart in his book fleshed them out, gave them dimension.
Three actors play Hart himself as a child, as the youngish man who is the central character in the book, and as the acclaimed star director/writer who is there to reflect on the past, and to comment on his own adjustment to fame and fortune. The play too is called Act One for it covers the time period in which a young boy from the Bronx fulfills his dream of having his first play produced on Broadway, which covers the first 26 years of his life. Santino Fontana and Tony Shalhoub play the adult playwright, and it’s their job to tell us the story.
The set takes us from the Bronx living quarters of Hart and his family to dozens of New York locations between 1914 when Hart was 10 and 1930 when he was 26. It’s huge, it’s on turntables, and it seems never to stop moving. When it does move, it sounds like an incoming train on the New York subway. And when we arrive at a designated spot, the scenes are so short all they have time for is the disposition of information. Messrs. Shalhoub and Fontana rarely get to interact with anyone — they are too busy filling us in on what’s happening, or what’s about to happen. We are well informed, but we are never enlightened.
When Hart meets and begins to collaborate with George S. Kaufman, lo and behold, that venerable curmudgeon is played by – Tony Shalhoub! I can’t think of any reason for that except the older Moss Hart is not a big enough role to justify hiring a star to play him. Mr. Shalhoub lets us know he’s someone else by mussing up his hair (Mr. Kaufman’s hair was famously wild) and washing his hands a lot (again, accurate).
When Moss is invited into Mrs. Kaufman’s salon to mix and mingle with their crowd of theatrical icons, he is approached by Dorothy Parker, Aline MacMahon, Alexander Woollcott, Harpo Marx, Frieda Fishbein and other celebrities of the day, all of whom get to tell us who they are, spout a bon mot or two, then disappear. The excellent Andrea Martin, last season’s Tony winner for her work in Pippin, gets to change her clothes, her wig, her accent, to appear briefly as Frieda Fishbein (a major author’s agent), as Moss Hart’s influential Aunt Kate and as George Kaufman’s wife Beatrice. Ms. Martin makes all three of them fun to meet, but we never get even an inch below the surface of any one of them, and that’s not Ms. Martin’s fault. She does attack them all differently, and I particularly loved her approach to Frieda Fishbein. But her three roles are merely sketched in the writing; again, they are there merely to fill us in on facts.
I’d like to have known more about Moss Hart’s inner life, more about the Kaufman’s marriage, more about Hart’s close friendships with Dore Schary and his fellow tumult makers at a Catskill summer camp, his friends from the time when he was one of them.
Casting of the supporting roles was uneven as well. Chuck Cooper, an excellent actor, does yeoman service as Langston Hughes, Charles Gilpin (the original Emperor Jones in Eugene O’Neill’s play), and Wally, a porter. But when he appears as Max Siegel, it’s a role for which he is simply wrong.
Will LeBow has perhaps the toughest assignment and it ‘s not his fault. As none of these peripheral characters he plays has more than a line or two, we have to depend on their appearance to give us an inkling of who they are. You simply cannot have one thin, moustached balding character actor play people as recognizable as Alexander Wollcott, Jed Harris and Augustus Pitou (less well known, in his time he was a second rate producer known as the “king of the one night stands” but had he been famous he would have been as different from the other two as they were from each other). It’s not that Mr. LeBow didn’t play their few lines well, it’s just that he was physically wrong, certainly for Woollcott and Harris. We don’t really know what Pitou looked like, but we might just as well have had any of the male members of the ensemble play any male (and even female) characters, for no attempt had been made to make them resemble their famous alter-egos, or even to possess qualities that would identify them.
Putting Deborah Offner into a male pants suit in an effort to make us identify with her Edna Ferber is ridiculous. Ferber was a well known collaborator of George Kaufman’s, but she did not look like a male jockey. Alexander Woollcott was an asexual cherub with a wicked twinkle that hid a waspish tongue, and there is no way he and Jed Harris could have inhabited the same human body. As these are all bit parts, their casting only makes recognizing them confusing at the least.
As to the two central figures in the play, the two Moss Harts of Santino Fontana and Tony Shalhoub, each an extremely interesting and arresting actor, are both hamstrung by the lack of dimension in the writing. They play guides for us, but we don’t need guides to tour this “road to riches” voyage. I wish we’d stumbled across some of the surprises and subtexts that are everywhere in the source material, but sadly missing from this adaptation of it.
I understand this production has created new interest in its subject, and there is to be a new edition of Moss Hart’s book. My recommendation about the play: Read the book.
Act One is onstage at Lincoln Center Theater-Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.