There are some seriously wonderful performances going on over at the Vivian Beaumont. Act One the play based on the autobiography of Moss Hart is not only an homage to theatre, it is a temporary harbor for some very good actors.
The first among these is Tony Shaloub who not only plays the Moss Hart who is authoring the story, but takes on the role of Hart’s Cockney father as well as Hart’s collaborator, another icon, George S. Kaufman. Mr. Shaloub is an immaculate performer who glides from one part to another with such little fanfare that it almost seems that we are time traveling.
Act One is the story of how Moss, who was introduced to the theatre by his Aunt Kate (Andrea Martin), swam upstream to his first Broadway (or anywhere) hit in 1930 at the age of 26. The play was Once In A Lifetime and was to be the first of many collaborations for Kaufman and Hart. This is a charming, albeit dull, story. The key to enjoying it is not to wait for a plot, settle in and enjoy the ride. There is no protagonist or antagonist, unless you count Hart and Hart. For according to himself, Hart was his own worst enemy and best ally.
Because we all know the outcome, there is no suspense in this tale. Rather, we get to watch as Hart is tossed from one life raft to another. There are a lot of accidents that aid his determination. His first job is at the office of a B-Tour producer, Augustus Pitou (Will LeBow) where he worms his way into a position as Office Boy (remember no email or fax machines or Keurig), soon to take over as secretary and script reader. When Pitou is out of a play for a new season, Hart decides he can write something better than he has read so far. He does and Pitou takes a chance on his first play, which fails out of town in Rochester. There follows a an acting job in Emperor Jones opposite Charles Gilpin (Chuck Cooper), and a stint in the Catskills and as a Social Director at a hotel in the Catskills. All the while he kept writing. When a new man by the name of Dore Schary (Will Brill), the future movie mogul, joins the small circle of the Confederation of Office Boys, he has already read Hart’s most recent play, Once In A Lifetime. He happens to have the private address of a producer, Jed Harris, and sets it up for the script to be sent over. Turns out Harris likes the script although EVERONE agrees the second and third act need work.
Another of his Confederation, Eddie Chodorov (Bill Amy) gets the same script to agent Frieda Fishbein (Andrea Martin) who brings it to another producer, Sam Harris (Bob Stillman) who calls in Kaufman (Shaloub).
Confused? So was I. This play is so literal that it is like a scavenger hunt. On a spectacular revolving set by Beowulf Boritt (the stage hands should have had a curtain call for the work they do) that changes as if it were part of a magic show, these wonderful actors pace from the Bronx to Broadway, from Rochester to the Upper East Side, from agents offices to the local tavern. The blocking alone is dizzying. Combined with the trail of the tale it is easy to feel lost.
This is why the entrance of Kaufman, who is eccentric and driven, is such a boost. We have someone to latch onto when Shaloub gives us this gift of a character, who is so peculiar he crosses his arms to turn on the water faucets. A detail not overplayed and probably missed by many. Kaufman takes the helm and tries to steer the ship to safe shore. That it takes rewrite after rewrite is not surprising, but we are driven almost as mad as the two writers in wanting success and an end to this chapter because the play as written is so lifeless.
The successful production does happen, but not without a price. Because this play lacks conflict of any sort it is tedious. It is a vanity piece in a way – the story of Moss Hart told in the temple where he worshiped. But for me, that is not enough. The text as written swaps authenticity for a bland rehashing of the facts. Please! Don’t bore me with the facts. Tell me a story.
It never fails to surprise me that folks take on real life and try to fit it into the glass slipper of a play. What works here is not the text, it is the actors, although watching Martin, Fontana, and Shaloub play sincere made me wince, whose love of the theatre is equal to Hart’s. (As a personal note, Will Brill was outstanding in each of his three roles, vibrant, vulnerable and inventive.)
As Hart says to us in the opening scene The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease – and these actors have it bad.
In this case, however, they have it bad and that IS good.
Act One – Written and directed by James Lapine, from the autobiography by Moss Hart
WITH: Bill Army (Eddie Chodorov), Will Brill (David Allen/Dore Schary/George), Laurel Casillo (Roz/Mary), Chuck Cooper (Wally/Charles Gilpin/Max Siegel), Santino Fontana (Moss Hart), Steven Kaplan (Irving Gordon/Pianist), Will LeBow (Augustus Pitou/Jed Harris), Mimi Lieber (Lillie Hart/Helen), Charlotte Maier (Phyllis/May), Andrea Martin (Aunt Kate/Frieda Fishbein/Beatrice Kaufman), Deborah Offner (Belle/Mrs. Rosenbloom), Matthew Saldivar (Joseph Regan/Jerry), Matthew Schechter (Moss Hart/Bernie Hart), Tony Shalhoub (Moss Hart/Barnett Hart/George S. Kaufman), Bob Stillman (Priestly Morrison/Sam Harris/Pianist) and Amy Warren (Mrs. Henry B. Harris).
Sets by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Ken Billington; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; music by Louis Rosen; production stage manager, Rick Steiger; general manager, Jessica Niebanck; production manager, Jeff Hamlin. Presented by Lincoln Center Theater, André Bishop, producing artistic director; Adam Siegel, managing director; Hattie K. Jutagir, executive director of development and planning. At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center; 212-239-6200, lct.org. Through June 15. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.