Richard and I saw this play at Lincoln Center last night (4/23). I turned to him at intermission and said, “Well, there’s a lot to like.” How’s that for carefully measured criticism?
The play is written and directed by James Lapine - - he’s won three Tonys, for the books he wrote for *Into the Woods*, *Falsettos*, and *Passion*. He also directed all three of those shows, and wrote the book and directed *Sunday in the Park with George*. *Act One* is an adaptation of the memoir by Moss Hart, the director and playwright who co-wrote *You Can’t Take It With You* and *The Man Who Came To Dinner* with George S. Kaufman, and wrote the book for *My Fair Lady*, he also directed that show. I personally know him best for having been married to my old girlfriend Kitty Carlisle!
The play is about Hart growing up in the Bronx in the teens and working in the theatre in the twenties. It culminates with him collaborating with Kaufman on *Once in a Lifetime*. It has three stars. Santino Fontana plays Hart as a young man - - Richard and I saw him as the prince in *Cinderella*, he’s adorable. Not traditionally handsome, but very appealing. Tony Shaloub (of *Monk*) plays three roles - - Hart as a middle-aged man, Hart’s father, and Kaufman. And Andrea Martin (of *SCTV*, and two-time Tony winner, most recently for *Pippin*) plays three roles - - Hart’s aunt, Hart’s agent, and Kaufman’s wife. All three actors put in stellar performances, but you get the feeling that everyone’s working a little too hard.
There’s a problem when someone writes and directs a show: who’s going to tell him what’s wrong with it? This was clearly a labor of love, I imagine Lapine read the book many years ago and always thought it would make a great play. It does not. Though much of it takes place in the theatre, it doesn’t hold the stage. There’s way too much narration, which I call “And Then I” Syndrome. Did he consider just putting the story on the stage, without having Hart talk to the audience?
The other big issue is that it’s just too damn long. It was almost three hours long. This is fine for *King Lear*, but too damn long for what should be a warm and breezy comedy. I’ll give you an example. Hart’s first job in the theatre was as office boy to a producer of touring shows. He was given a pile of scripts and asked to give his boss the best one. He didn’t like any of them, so he wrote a play himself, a western called *The Beloved Bandit*. His boss liked it a lot and put it on. It was a huge flop. This could have taken five minutes: the boss decides to do the show, you see the show onstage, and see how bad it is, and Hart is despondent but moves on to the next thing. But no - - Lapine shows the first day of rehearsal, shows them having trouble with the scenery in the final dress, shows the performance, shows the producers having a post-mortem about how bad the show was. It took twenty minutes. Over and over again, Lapine proved that he didn’t have the distance from the material to make the book work as a play.
Richard was really annoyed by the set - - it was huge, full of stairs and different levels, on a turntable. It turned around every five minutes, you got the feeling the director wanted to make the play feel more dynamic. He didn’t realize that this has to come from the script itself, not from the set. And another thing: I’m all for hiring live musicians, but why would he have TWO pianists play the score? It would have been so much cheaper to have the score piped in, it didn’t add anything to have them onstage. Also, why do you need TWO?
The best line in the play: Dorothy Parker meets Hart at a cocktail party and says, “Hello, Moss. I believe I know your sister, Ivy.”