ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
There's no shortage of direct quotes from Hart's beautifully written observations not only about theater but poverty, family and New York City, that made Act One such a universally compelling American Dream story. However, while much of the richness of Hart's self-characterization and imagery has gone missing, I don't agree with the quibbles about this adaptation being boring.
Despite being at once overstuffed and under developed in its details and characters, in this day of economically cast plays without second or third acts it's a pleasure to see a non-musical with a generous cast. The cast at the Vivian Beaumont totals twenty-two, which seems even larger since most of the actors take on two or more roles.
But the cast isn't just large. It's outstanding.
Heading that ensemble are Tony Shalhoub and Santino Fontana who gracefully handle the easily tending toward awkwardness device of being double narrators. Shalhoub plays Hart the memoirist reflecting on his love affair with the theater and Santino Fontana the young man who through determination, luck and talent makes his dream of a life in the theater come true.
Tony Shalhoub does a triple hat trick, segueing between the older Hart and George S. Kaufman, and between the narrating Hart and the angry working class father. His best and most memorable turns are as the deliciously quirky Kaufman. (Hey, is someone out there working on a stage adaptation of Howard Teichman's 1972 fascinating George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait?
Fontana charmingly brings out the delight and awe of the young man who can't believe his good fortune in working with a man who he has idolized from afar. Though in the book, Hart never addresses Kaufman other than by his surname, Lapine's having made the older man a less distant and unknowable personality.
It's the way Lapine has put his own stamp on Kaufman that's among his better choices as it also supports a scene in which Kaufman interacts with Hart's friends. Those friends, who include another future success, Dore Shary (Will Brill), give Fontana's Hart a somewhat more rounded persona, who managed to at least have some male buddies even though ambition and supporting his family left no time for a boy-girl relationship. While this struck me as too careful self-editing in the book, Hart's ability to depict deep emotions made his despair during a down-in-the-dumps moment heart breaking and believable, but just another incident in the play.
Among other positive choices about expanding characters and incidents is the built-up role of Beatrice Kaufman since it gives more stage time and Jane Greenwood's colorful costumes to the always crowd pleasing Andrea Martin. Besides the vivacious Mrs. Kaufman, Martin also plays the Blanche DuBois-like Aunt Kate who influenced his pursuit of the theater as well as theatrical agent Frieda Fishbein. Some of the stage pictures involving Aunt Kate are exceptionally vivid.
And speaking of vivid stage pictures, Beowulf Boritt's two level, multiple location turntable set is a stunner. It's also a savvy metaphor for the merry-go-round that offers those game enough to jump aboard and aim to catch the gold ring of fame and fortune. Whether intentional or not, that set is also an apt reminder that Moss Hart's many successful endeavors included his staging of Lady In the Dark which featured a number of manually operated turntables, a precursor to today's modern technology which has enabled set designer Boritt to allow the action move from the Harts' tenement apartment to Kaufman's townhouse, to various theatrical offices, and more on an giant, double-decker carousel. As Shalhoub is bound to collect a bunch of best actor award nomination, so Boritt is sure to nab some best scenic design nominations.
Happily the play also includes Hart's acting gig in The Emperor Jones, which gives Chuck Cooper some fine moments as the black actor Charles Gilpin who, except for that role, found few opportunities to practice his craft. While it's understandable that the adaptation doesn't spend a lot of time on Hart's six-years as a Borsht Belt hotel Social Director, the play skims over it too fast to be meaningful.
The pile-up of incidents at the expense of more substantive scenes might have benefited from eliminating the Jed Harris character and his bit of business with Kaufman, also by trimming the scene in the fur vault.
While Act One continues to sell in book form, the biggest challenge for the stage adaptation is that such a big chunk of the story involves the process by which Hart and Kaufman's turned what threatens to be a flop into a hit. There's a timelessness to the struggle out of poverty and New York as a town with an enormous number of shows opening each week and plenty of newspapers to write about them adds nostalgic appeal. Once In a Lifetime, the show Kaufman and Hart worked on so diligently hasn't fared as well. It's last revival on Broadway was in 1998 and that wasn't exactly a much extended run ( review). One of its biggest fans, he Williamstown Theatre Festival, mounted it three times, but the last of those revivals was also more than a dozen years ago review).
As noted in an interview in the Lincoln Center Theater Review, Mr. Lapine was not blind to this challenge of dramatizing events pertaining to a mostly forgotten play. While he's done his best to engage audiences in how Kaufman and Hart tried to make their audiences laugh at the second and third as well as the first act of their comedy. Having the playwrights discussion about editing Once in a Lifetime in Kaufman's second floor office segue into snippets of real scenes below is a good idea but a plot synopsis worked into the dialogue would also have helped.
All these flaws notwithstanding, Act One is a big old-fashioned play that's had a lot of love and talent lavished on it. Its final scene makes up for all the missing pieces in the family dynamic. And the last image of Aunt Kate is as Moss the narrator puts it "Not a bad curtain for a first act.