By: David Sheward
The bulk of James Lapine’s stage version of Act One, Moss Hart’s beloved memoir of his early life in the theater, concerns the arduous trek of Once in a Lifetime, Hart’s first collaboration wit
h George S. Kaufman and his first hit, on its way to Broadway in 1930. During much of the action, the partners are whittling down the bulky script to make their satiric story of Hollywood’s frantic adapting to the new-fangled talkies more focused. Ironically, Lapine, who also directs, could have used some of his characters’ advice.
While it does capture Hart’s passion for the theater and offers many pleasures, the play is more than a tad long and rambling. It’s almost intermission by the time we get to the Lifetime saga. Plus, Lapine has installed two narrators-Hart as an older man (Tony Shalhoub), and a young man (Santino Fontana) who also partakes in the action-when one would have sufficed.
Much background is covered, including Hart’s impoverished childhood, early jobs at entertainment camps in the Catskills and offices of second-rate touring companies, acting with a legendary alcoholic, and his first stab at playwriting-a ridiculous melodrama called The Beloved Bandit. It’s all rich, funny, and enjoyable, especially as staged with verve by Lapine on Beowulf Boritt’s amazing, three-level, revolving set. But the script lacks the necessary tightness to get us to cheer for Moss’s big triumph when Lifetime finally turns into a smash after nearly closing out-of-town.
Despite the paunchiness of the plot, there is much to savor here-chiefly Shalhoub’s delightfully eccentric portrayal of Kaufman, which he plays in addition to the narrator and Hart’s brutish Cockney father. Reminiscent of Shalhoub’s turn as the defective detective Monk, Kaufman has an obsessive-compulsive aversion to being touched or any physical expressions of affection. The actor perfectly times these tics, as well as the odd playmaker’s sudden explosions of temper as when he barks at a pair of chattering matrons to take their seats before the curtain of his show goes up. He also subtly reveals his paternal affection for Hart, both as Kaufman and the gruff senior Hart.
Fontana has the less showy role as the younger version of Moss, but once he takes over from an even younger iteration (Matthew Schechter), he is almost never offstage and becomes the play’s central support. He delivers on this difficult assignment with aplomb, expressing the intense desire to succeed as well as the fear of failure.
Andrea Martin plays three key roles in Hart’s life: his narcissistic Aunt Kate who introduces him to theater, his first agent Frie
da Fishbein, and Kaufman’s supportive wife Beatrice. Her Aunt Kate is the most memorable of this trio, a delusional woman capable of petty rudeness but also inspiring in her love of the stage.
The large cast features numerous tasty treats-including Chuck Cooper’s bitter, broken former star; Will LeBow’s fast-talking producer; Bob Stillman’s grand director; Mimi Lieber’s sympathetic mother; and Deborah Offner’s gossipy neighbor. If there were just a few less dishes, Act One would be the perfect feast.
April 17-June 15. Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com