Act One...or Moss Hart is a Huge Theatre Fanboy!

Watching the first portion of Act One - now open at the Vivian Beaumont Theater - was quite an experience from me. When the very-young Moss Hart is being regaled with stories about the THEA-TAH from his Aunt Kate, I was instantly transported to a conversation I had with my grandmother at Thanksgiving over a year ago. As I started telling her about my theatre endeavors, she began sharing some of hers with me, right down to how much tickets would cost (Broadway used to cost, like, a quarter way back when).

What transpires between Moss Hart and Aunt Kate, just like my grandmother and I, is an exchange every theatre-person can relate to...and I really do mean 'every'. Because that has happened to you in some way, shape or form and, hopefully, we're grateful because it spurred (or continues to spur) this lifelong addiction passion.

Even if you don't have an Aunt Kate, you could be a Moss Hart. Or maybe you know bunches of him...you know, someone so emphatic about theatre, he or she will do whatever he could just to be apart of it in some proximity. Just look at your typical weekend rush line - hundreds of (exhausted, sleep-deprived) people show up, some even coming from out-of-town, just for a cheap(ish) seat. That is the charm of Act One, an adaptation of Hart's autobiography culminating with his co-creation of Once in a Lifetime with George Kaufman. At its best, it is an extremely personal story about a Theatre Fanboy and his journey to mounting his first Broadway show, all of which appeals to and strikes our Theatre Fanboy/Fangirl in the feels.

Probably the most affecting scene happens shortly after Moss Hart begins working at a Broadway production company. This prompts a theatre date and reunion with his Aunt Kate for the first time in eight years (a family spat separated them). As she starts escalating the stairs to the balcony, Hart intervenes and informs her that they have orchestra seats. The look on Aunt Kate's face was soooooooooo priceless - a combination of being surprised and overjoyed to the point of tears - that I almost cried along with her. Partially because Andrea Martin, in one of the three roles she essays, nailed this beautiful and subtle moment, but also because we are so in tune with what these characters are feeling. Because they are us. Or we are them. Or something.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned scene is the high mark of the show and it happens pretty early on. But hakuna matata, the rest of the show is nowhere near unwatchable. James Lapine, in addition to writing Act One, directed the show with an energetic and ambitious fervor. The stage is a revolving turntable of Beowolf Boritt's stunning sets, taking the audience on a ride through so many different scenes and ups and downs in Hart's life, like a merry-go-round (symbolism!). The characters enter and exit and swerve and veer and the enthusiasm never wears off - the entire show looks like a video montage de theatre!

Lapine's work is not infallible though, especially in the writing department. The show, clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours, is simultaneously too much, yet not enough. The first act paces better with a more vignette-ish approach to the different installments of Hart's life, where as the second act grinds to a halt as Hart and Kaufman go through the stages of writing and mounting and rewriting and remounting Once in a Lifetime in the lead-up to Broadway. Their character dynamic - Hart's subservient and playfulness engaging with Kaufman's reserved and neurotic nature - can only hold my attention for so long before it runs generic. All of that and we don't really get a grasp as to what Once in a Lifetime is really about (I had no idea going into Act One and that didn't really change) and worst, it left me curious as to what was on the cutting room floor sotospeak. Like any adaptation of Les Miserables, I get the sense that Act One's source material is too much story for any one show (unless it pulls a Tony Kushner and runs for three-and-a-half hours, but that's also tempting destruction). But even with that piece of recompense in mind, I disagree that every scene in the final product is of the utmost importance if I feel the show needs more scenes to expand the characters and story...and less scenes so the show doesn't detour to dullsville.

What it also needs to do is rethink the idea of throwing Tony Shaloub into as many scenes as possible. When Moss Hart addresses the audience, my attention was diverted when having Santino Fontana's younger, more boy-ish Hart stand next to Shaloub's incongruous Hart. And Shaloub is already pulling double duty...so, why the third role as Moss Hart #3? Especially when it goes against this sly theme of Shaloub playing the authoritative (and occasionally cold-hearted) older, male figure in Hart's life? Granted, he is doing a fine job in all three roles (although his narrating Moss Hart and Hart's father roles are vastly underdeveloped, they may as well have been an ensemble member), but that "casting" decision seemed like an idea with no follow-through.

Same goes for Andrea Martin playing three encouraging, caring older female figures in Hart's life. Another fine job from her end, but a decision leaving me tilting my head at the show's refusal to part with Shaloub and/or Martin for more then 15 minutes. They should have been focusing on amending Santino Fontana's shockingly lackluster performance, which fails to reach any height other then 'adorable' and 'enthusiastic'. Hart goes through the ringer on the path to stardom and you wouldn't have known that with Fontana's fixed-in range of emotion.

You won't be leaving Act One wholly satisfied with the story or even with an exact semblance of what you saw (so many days later and I am still trying to sort it all out). But when the focus of the show is on the thrill and enjoyment of live theatre and that revolving stage whisks you away on a nostalgic journey, you won't mind too much. It is a show that had to be made and can only work on stage at Lincoln Center. There is too much pretty to be seen, fun to be had and relatable moments that remind us with what we already know...theatre rocks! And thank you for saying it loud and proud, Act One.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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