[My friend Kirk Woodward is making another generous contribution to ROT, his report on the Lincoln Center Theater stage adaptation of Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One, which he saw on Wednesday, 28 May. The play, adapted for the theater by James Lapine, started previews at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, LCT’s Broadway house, on 20 March and opened on 17 April. The play closed on 15 June, but according to the LCT website, Live From Lincoln Center filmed Act One on 14 and 15 June for future broadcast on PBS.]
Back in 2007, my wife Pat was teaching, and I was playing piano for, a class for middle-school children in musical theater performance at an excellent drama school in Bloomfield, New Jersey. At one class a student apologized for missing the previous session. “I had to go to my grandmother’s funeral,” she said. “She was an actress. Her name was Hart.”
Pat and I were stunned – we realized that her grandmother was Kitty Carlisle Hart (1910-2007), known to Marx Brothers fans everywhere for her performance in the film A Night at the Opera (1936), for twenty years the Chair of the New York State Council of the Arts, and wife of the celebrated Broadway writer and director Moss Hart (1904-1961) from their wedding in 1946 until his death.
Moss Hart made his name on Broadway, and surely had one of the most illustrious careers there that anyone has ever had. He wrote six plays and musicals with George S. Kaufman, including the much loved You Can’t Take It With You (1936) and the frantic farce The Man Who Came To Dinner (1939). He wrote plays on his own, including Light Up the Sky (1948), a funny look at theater that I recall provided scenes for my acting classes. His interest in (and experience with) psychoanalysis led him to write the book for Lady in the Dark (1941) with a score by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin. He directed the first Broadway productions of both My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960).
He also wrote an autobiography about his early years called Act One (1959) that’s widely considered to be among the very best theatrical autobiographies. It’s really two stories. The first is about Hart’s young life, and it’s fascinating for its look at a time that’s vanished and a Broadway world that’s changed a great deal. The second is about Hart’s collaboration with George S. Kaufman on Once in a Lifetime (1930), and that’s as fine a theater story as there is to tell.
George Kaufman (1889-1961) was another of the most successful playwrights and directors who ever worked on Broadway, and over a longer period of time. Just a couple of examples: he wrote – actually, he co-wrote, since he almost worked always with a collaborator – Animal Crackers (1928) and The Cocoanuts (1929) for the Marx Brothers, as well as their film A Night at the Opera. He won a Pulitzer prize for the political spoof Of Thee I Sing (1931) with a score by George and Ira Gershwin. He directed, among many other shows, Of Mice and Men (1937). And he was a famous “character” – caustic, phobic, witty, a major member of the famous Algonquin Round Table group of writers, which was a pretty eccentric group in its own right.
So when I heard that the actor Tony Shalhoub was playing Kaufman in a dramatization of Act One at the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont in New York, written and directed by James Lapine, the production moved to the top of my “must see” list, and I’m glad it did. Others agree: Act One, which opened on April 17, 2014, received Tony Award nominations for Best Play, Best Performance by an Actor in a Play (Tony Shalhoub), Best Costume Design for a Play (Jane Greenwood, also receiving a Lifetime Achievement award), Best Scenic Design of a Play (Beowulf Boritt), and Best Sound Design for a Play (Dan Moses Schreier). It seems to me that it could have received other nominations as well.
James Lapine, particularly well known for his work as both director and librettist with William Finn (Falsettos, 1992; A New Brain, 1999) and Stephen Sondheim (Sunday in the Park With George, 1984; Into the Woods, 1987; Passion, 1994), generally follows Moss Hart’s book closely in adapting Act One for the stage, presenting some 30 characters impersonated by a company of 22. Its large cast brings to mind the shows of the era when Kaufman and Hart wrote together (1930 to 1940) – the number of actors they used in those days would be unlikely today, when a two-actor, one-set new play is much more the norm. Lincoln Center, thankfully, did not accept this limitation.
A play based on a life story – a “bioplay,” as Variety might say – will almost certainly require a large number of sets, because it’s covering so many scenes in a life. For Act One the set designer, Beowulf Boritt, created an enormous, multi-level turntable set that is a thing of beauty in itself, suggesting a city skyscape while still including living rooms, hotel rooms, offices, theater auditoriums, street scenes, and numerous other locations. Lapine, known for the fluidity of his direction, often has actors moving through the turntable as it revolves, making it possible to keep the action of the play going while it moves from one setting to another (surely a dizzying experience for the actor!).
A play with so many characters provides many chances for Broadway to do one of the things it does best – to allow actors to create indelible moments in small scenes. A few chosen at random: Chuck Cooper is searing as Charles Gilpin, a black actor who can brilliantly play the role of O’Neill’s Emperor Jones and isn’t ever cast for anything else. Amy Warren has just the right touch as Dorothy Parker. And Andrea Martin, whom I remember with great fondness from her days as Edith Prickley on Second City Television (SCTV) (1976-1984), and who has developed a major theatrical career, has no trouble at all shifting from batty but inspirational Aunt Kate to the elegant Beatrice Kaufman, a central figure, as it turns out, in the story.
As for Tony Shalhoub, he plays three roles. He is Moss Hart’s rough and ready father, sporting a thick cockney accent and a cap (one less hair style to change!). He is also the mature Moss Hart, and he captures how far Hart wanted to move, and did move, from his early surroundings – he is an elegant man, with just a hint of a British accent. (Hart says in his book that he always had one, but in the show his youthful self, forthrightly played by Santino Fontana, has little or none.)
And of course he is George Kaufman, in a performance of glorious physicality that brings to mind, but is not identical to, the highly neurotic detective Adrian Monk that Shalhoub played on TV from 2002 to 2009. Faced with the prospect of having to shake hands with someone, this Kaufman practically shrinks into himself, like the witch melting in The Wizard of Oz, leaving behind only a finger or two weakly waving the offender away. The calmness, even sweetness that Shalhoub brings to his work adds a rich coloring to this portrait of a most uncomfortable man.
I have said that James Lapine’s adaptation generally follows the book. There are exceptions: for example, Hart describes the room on the fourth floor of Kaufman’s house where they work as dark and spare, but in the play it is bright and elegant. Lapine has a character explain that Beatrice Kaufman must have arranged a party to introduce him to Kaufman’s crowd; in the book Hart does not say this. In the book there is not much conversation with Dorothy Parker, and it’s Gershwin at the piano, not Irving Berlin. This kind of thing, however, is trivial, and it’s amazing how much of the dialogue in the book is used word for word in the play.
But one small change in Hart’s story seems to me to point toward the only real weakness in the show. A number of reviews indicated they felt the show was too long at two hours and 45 minutes (including one intermission) and could be trimmed. Reluctantly I’d say the same thing. I felt that from about 25 minutes into the first act, everything was perfect; and I felt this way well into the second act. But occasionally a scene struck me as retained out of a sense of obligation to the book. That is, as a character in a novel by Charles Dickens says, an “amiable weakness,” and I certainly don’t feel it hurts the play too much.
But, ironically, the stage version has the same problem that Once in a Lifetime has in Hart’s book. The producer Sam Harris, in the book and in the play, says to Hart, at a desperate moment, “I wish, kid, that this weren’t such a noisy play.” Implementing that little observation – that an audience needs a break from frenetic activity – thrillingly turns out to be the key to Lifetime’s success. It pertains also to Lapine’s version, which keeps its energy up – nothing wrong with that – but the audience never gets a quiet moment for thinking and experiencing.
I may be exaggerating this point somewhat, but in the play, when Harris makes his pivotal comment, he doesn’t say it in a one-on-one conversation with Hart as a speakeasy is closing (which is how Hart describes it in the book); he says it on the street, the colorful agent Frieda Fishbein (Andrea Martin again) is right there with him, and the scene finishes with a quip. That one marvelous moment of realization, the climax of the book and a moment that represents all the mystery of the creative act, becomes, in a way, just another moment.
Never mind – it’s a fine stage version of a great book. What, after all that, does it give the audience, other than the story itself? The same thing that the book does – the experience of encountering someone – Hart – who has optimism and determination to match his talent, someone who won’t be satisfied until he’s become what he’s meant to be. The story is inspirational in the best way. Hart never wrote Act Two, or even (as the fashion used to be) Act Three. He left them for us to write.
[Kirk has contributed many articles to ROT, most recently “Lady Gaga and Once” on 5 May. Other pieces include “Stage Etiquette,” 11 February; “Leonard Cohen,” 2 February 2013; “Notes on Reading,” 24 January 2012; “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” 8 January 2011; “The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010; “The Most Famous Thing Jean-Paul Sartre Never Said,” 9 July 2010; and “How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks,” 5 October 2009. As you can see, his interests vary pretty widely—as does his knowledge and critical eye.
[As for Act One, when the Tonys were awarded at midtown Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall on 8 June, the LCT production lost all but one of the awards for which it had been nominated. Aside from costume designer (of over 125 Broadway productions) Jane Greenwood’s Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, Beowulf Boritt won for Best Scenic Design of a Play at the award ceremony.]