|Tony Shalhoub, Andrea Martin and Santino Fontana. Photo: Joan Marcus|
By Lauren Yarger
Moss Hart is one of Broadway's legendary playwrights and producers, so it seems fitting that one of the most engaging productions this year on Broadway should tell his story.
James Lapine (Into the Woods, Falsettos, Passion) writes and directs this adaptation of Hart's autobiography Act One starring Tony Shalhoub ("Monk"), Andrea Martin (Pippin) and Santino Fontana (Cindrella). It focuses on Hart's early childhood, his passion for the theater his rags-to-riches story and his writing collaboration with George S. Kaufman, with whom he penned a couple of my personal favorites: the screenplay for the movie "Hans Christian Anderson," and the Pulitzer-Prize winning play You Can't Take it with You.
The story is narrated by an adult Hart (Shalhoub). The role of Moss also is played b Matthew Schechter (as a young boy) and Fonatana (as a young man). Lapine's direction is so expert, that transitions between Moss at different ages and between actors playing multiple roles is sublime and we can only imagine director Hart himself looking down and giving a thumb's up.
Moss reflects on his humble roots, growing up poor in a small Bronx apartment where his father, Barnett (played by Shalhoub), mother, Lillie (Mimi Lieber) and little brother, Bernie (Matthew Schechter) take in boarders and provide a home for Lillie's sister, Kate (Martin). Kate doesn't help out much around the house, or offer any of her money to help the debt-ridden family get by, but she does open up the world of the theater for young Moss.
Barnett doesn't want young Moss wasting his time on things like the theater, or school, and insists he take a job to help support the family instead. Kate fuels the boy's dream of working in the theater by taking him to some matinees without his father's knowledge. Eventually, Moss secures a job as an assistant to producer Augustus Pitou (Will LeBow) and has a chance to see one of his plays produced.
He forms friendships with other office boys Irving Gordon (Steven Kaplan), Dore Sherry (Will Brill) and Eddie Chodorov (Bill Army) who help each other secure tickets to shows and help boost each other's careers. Hart gets his first real writing job through one of them when he is tapped to create comedy sketches at The Flagher Hotel in the Catskills. The play's locations rotate into pace on a large, three-story carousel of a set designed by the always excellent Beowolf Boritt. Lighting design is by nicely handed by Ken Billingham with costumes by Jane Greenwood.
Hart's big break comes when rival producers Jed Harris (LeBow) and Sam Harris (Bob Stilman) vie for who will produce his play, Once in a Lifetime and he is introduced to Bernard F. Kaufman (also played by Shalhoub to the audience's great delight. Kaufman shares a lot of hand-washing type obsession like detective Adrian Monk, the TV character Shalhoub portrayed for years.)
Martin also gets triple duty, playing Hart's agent Frieda Fishbein and Kafman's wife, Beatrice.
Though it errs a bit by trying to include every detail possible in the two-hour, 45-minute presentation (one can almost imagine theater creators Hart and Kaufman looking knowledgeably at their watches) it still is entirely absorbing, with not a weak performance to be found throughout the large cast playing numbers of roles. It's the kind of story you wish would never end, -- maybe Lapine should consider Act Two to continue the story of Hart's success and more personal details from his life, like his marriage to Kitty Carlisle.
Hart couldn't take it with him, but he left a legacy in the theater which audience goers can savor in Act One through June 15 at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 west 65th St., NYC. http://www.lct.org/.
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