Moss Hart’s coming-of-age autobiography “Act One,” about how a poor kid from the Bronx went on to become a famous playwright after a period of considerable struggle, is one of the most beloved books ever written about Broadway.
Even if the New York theater scene that Hart fell in love is no longer as culturally prominent or exciting, “Act One” still speaks to anyone who has fallen under its alluring spell.
Hart, who co-authored three-act comedies with George S. Kaufman including “You Can’t Take It With You” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and directed the original production of “My Fair Lady,” died shortly after the publication of “Act One” in 1959.
Director-playwright James Lapine, best known for his musicals with Stephen Sondheim and William Finn, has helmed a theatrical adaptation with a size to match the book’s sweeping scope.
Were it not for the considerable financial resources of Lincoln Center Theater, it’s hard to imagine that this oversized production, which features a revolving three-story set, could have been pulled off.
Although Lapine captures the structure of the book and Hart’s perspective through the use of narration, this jam-packed, unwieldy adaptation suffers from disunity, heavy exposition, the sensation of being rushed and some absolutely puzzling and messy choices, such as the use of two simultaneous narrators.
In one scene, someone criticizes “Once in a Lifetime,” the play that Hart is writing with Kaufman, as too “tiring.” Frankly, the same could be said about “Act One.”
If “Act One” must be adapted, it should be as a multi-part television mini-series. Or, as a play, it should focus exclusively on his collaboration with Kaufman on their first play, which reveals just how demanding and chaotic the creative process can be.
But in spite of all these problems, there is much to enjoy in the production, from the wondrous set design to the fine turns from Andrea Martin as Hart’s theater-loving aunt, Chuck Cooper as the historic actor Charles Gilpin and Tony Shalhoub as the very peculiar Kaufman. Santino Fontana, who portrays Hart for the majority of the time, has a winning spirit.
“Act One” plays at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center through June 15.
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