“Act One” Opens on Broadway

The Vivian Beaumont Theatre is the 1,105 seat Broadway house run by Lincoln Center, which also operates two smaller houses in their beautiful West 65th Street complex.  This revolving stage is presently occupied by the set of Act One, a play written and directed by James Lapine, based off the memoir of the same name by Moss Hart.  As the set by Beowulf Boritt revolves, the audience is able to glimpse the past, present, and future scenes of Hart’s life at once, which sets the tone for the multi-generational time-hopping play.  Though many critics gave positive reviews to this story catering to the theatrical die-hards, other reviewers found it lacking drama, despite being a recounting of the ultimate drama success story.

Without fail, critics praised the performances of the two main actors.  Santino Fontana, who has increasingly come into the Broadway consciousness of late due to his star turns as the Prince in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella as well as the lead in the Off-Broadway play Sons of the Prophet, plays Moss Hart as a young man.  Tony Shalhoub, well-known to the public through the television show Monk,and a Lincoln Center favorite recently seen in Golden Boy, has multiple parts to play: Moss Hart as an older man, his father Barnett, and also his great collaborator, George S. Kaufman.  Throughout most of the first act, Shalhoub juggles the first two of these roles, generally serving as narrator when playing Hart as an older man, while Fontana simultaneously serves as a second narrator.  Finally at the end of Act I, Shalhoub re-enters, this time as Kaufman, who joins forces with Hart to create some of the great musical collaborations of Broadway history, such as You Can’t Take it With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and the play Merrily We Roll Along, which later served as the source for the musical of the same name whose score was written by Stephen Sondheim.

James Lapine knows a thing or two about collaboration himself, as he is best known for his musical theatre collaborations with Behind the Curtain of Act One! Chart Theater Legend Moss Hart’s Extraordinary Journey to Broadwaythe Stephen Sondheim.  Their work together includes Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, and Passion.  It therefore must have been very close to Lapine’s heart to tell this rags-to-riches story of a young theatre artist looking for his big break, only to find a collaborator in a more experienced individual.  For the most part, Lapine manages to adapt Hart’s memoir with a significant degree of wit and a great deal of humor.  However, it is extremely difficult to adapt an entire book into a play of manageable length, and this play does trail on the long side.  Whereas the first act was critiqued as being a bit cliché, for which any story of a struggling artist could have filled in, the second act suffers from the lack of dramatic tension and over-exposition.

The play also features excellent supporting performances by Matthew Saldivar (Peter and the Starcatcher), Will Brill (Tribes), and Will LeBow as both Jed Harris and Augustus Pitou.  Despite fabulous work from the cast, however, the production is overblown and the storytelling at times flavorless.  Though it makes perfect sense that this biography of a modern theatre icon would find its home on the Vivian Beaumont stage, the theatrical adaptation of this theatre master’s life story does not quite match up to his legacy.

James Lapine’s ‘Act One’ Begins Previews

Last night, a new play began previews at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center’s Broadway house.  Written and directed by James Lapine, Act One is a stage adaptation of the 1954 memoir of the same name by Broadway playwright, director, and lyricist Moss Hart.

act one

James Lapine brings to this project his own vast experience as a director and librettist, having won three Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical (Into the Woods, Falsettos, Passion), as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Sunday in the Park with George).  Lapine is a frequent collaborator with the renowned composer Stephen Sondheim, having written the libretto for many of his scores and having served as director for many of his productions.

Act One tells the story of Moss Hart’s life, from his early years in the Bronx to his ascent to Broadway royalty, detailing his collaborations with the theatre multi-hyphenate George S. Kaufman.  When the memoir was published in 1954, it remained on The New York Times Bestseller List for 41 weeks, and the celebrated theatre journalist Frank Rich has called it “the greatest showbiz book ever written.”  In this new stage adaptation, Tony Shalhoub (Golden Boy, Lend Me a Tenor) plays both Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman in their later years, and Santino Fontana (Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Sunday in the Park with George) plays Hart as a younger man.  The cast is rounded out by Andrea Martin, Chuck Cooper, Matthew Saldivar, Bob Stillman, Amy Warren, Bill Army, Will Brill, Laurel Casillo, Steven Kaplan, Will LeBow, Mimi Lieber, Charlotte Maier, Deborah Offner, and Matthew Schechter.

Several individuals in the cast and creative team are frequent faces at Lincoln Center.  James Lapine returns to LCT after having written the book for the musical A New Brain, with music composed by William Finn, which played in 1998 at LCT’s Off-Broadway house, the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre.  Furthermore, LCT produced a revival of Lapine’s play Twelve Dreams, which he also directed, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre in 1995.  Tony Shalhoub returns to LCT after his acclaimed performance last year as Mr. Bonaparte in Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy.  Though this is Santino Fontana’s first time performing at Lincoln Center, he is a quickly rising Broadway star, having been nominated for a Tony Award for his originating starring role as Prince Topher in the still-running Broadway production of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella.

For Lincoln Center to premiere a new play at their Broadway house, they must have confidence that it is of superb quality.  Their website coverage is certainly enthusiastic, detailing how wildly popular the memoir has been for the last half century, and explaining how Moss Hart’s tale is the classic New York story – not only because he ended up making it big, but also because he truly struggled in his early years.  After the play officially opens on April 17, 2014, it will be discernible whether James Lapine’s production succeeds in matching up to the stupendous career of the man it profiles.