Moss Hart published his autobiography Act One in 1959. He died of a heart attack only two years later in December of 1961. In his introduction, and now repeated in the opening lines of the stage version, he said, “The theater is not so much a profession as a disease.”
“Ah, yes,” said those of us who are theatre addicts, “That fits.” The book has become a kind of bible for aspiring and veteran theatre artists alike, and a good many others as well.
I came to it relatively late, still trying to puzzle through where I fit into the big picture, as so many of us do. And I was immediately taken by how a young urchin living in the Bronx, who has never been to the theatre, can come to make an irrefutable decision, and pursue it with a single-mindedness of purpose for the rest of his life, finishing as an icon of the world stage. Evidently, the man never questioned why he was on the planet; he knew from the start.
I suppose had he lived long enough and been sufficiently moved, Hart might well have written an Act Two, covering his later years as a seasoned successful playwright and director, including many fruitful partnerships, his adventures in Hollywood, etc.
But Act One ends with the beginning of his long and successful partnership with George S. Kaufman, and the 1930 production of their first play together, Once in a Lifetime. Still, it’s a truly universal, inspirational tale … merely disguised as one half of a theatre autobiography.
Sadly, I did not find this play version inspirational in the slightest. Seasoned playwright and director James Lapine has chosen to focus on the narration of facts rather than an exploration of any “disease” associated with the love of theatre. He has resorted to plain old “stage-manager”-type expositional narration, disguised by casting gimmickry and top-heavy stage machinery. Indeed Lapine’s strengths lie in his musical theatre expertise. But here we want so much more than a naïve old-fashioned musical comedy about boy makes good … what’s more with neither catchy song nor dance number to keep us awake. I’d bet 95% of the audiences who see this play have read the book, and we deserve a little more depth.
I will admit that the evening was not a total loss for me. For what the play is, it ain’t bad. But it is also completely aggravating that it wasn’t so much more. There are some brilliant performances here, and I do love to see gimmickry, whether mechanical or structural, unless it gets in the way. Here, strip it out of the way, and we’re left with an old-fashioned, fact-heavy, repetitive, subtext-less, and way-too-sincere eulogy.
So why not “kick it up a notch,” as Emeril used to say, by letting the three principals (Tony Shalhoub, Santino Fontana, and Andrea Martin) play different roles, different characters altogether, at different ages, and let them step out and do a little narration to boot? Wow: What a concept!
The completely sincere and energetic Fontana and hyper-theatrical Martin both turn in fine performances in their several roles, but the walk-away winner is Shalhoub, who plays both Hart and Kaufman at times, as well as several lesser roles. He is especially brilliant as the fastidious Kaufman, outdoing for phobic hand-washing even his famous TV persona as the OCD ace homicide detective Adrian Monk. He does manage some lightning fast costume changes to do it, if that’s the sort of thing some of us go to plays to see.
Double casting? Interesting idea, maybe … unless the audience spends the evening wondering, “Why?” … which of course I did. It’s not as if there weren’t nineteen other cast members who could have been put to work in the roles.
But WAIT! There’s MORE! More gimmickry to compensate for straight-line story theatre? Lets add a huge complicated three- story revolving set, just to be sure the audience figures out we’re talking about different socio-economic status, different time periods, the same time period in different places, etc. etc.? Damn the expense! It’s what audiences expect of a Broadway play these days. Turns out it was indeed a mighty impressive and beautifully executed set, designed by Beowolf Boritt, but sadly, it was way oversized for and completely distracting from the play at hand.
I can’t really leave the impressive Moss Hart behind me without calling attention to one of most impressive subtexts of his story, one which I wish had earned more attention in the play: We just never know how or whether one small, offhand remark spoken to a child by an aunt, a parent, a teacher … might bloom into hours of conversation, both spoken and unspoken, and make a career, a relationship, a fascination, an obsession … a life! If only we did, and could choose such remarks wisely, we could no doubt be done with schools and prisons.
NEXT TIME: The Realistic Joneses