FROM RAGS TO RICHES: A REVIEW OF “ACT ONE”

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Act One Vivian Beaumont Theater
The magnificent multi-level set designed by Beowulf Boritt.

In 1959, playwright and director Moss Hart—then fifty-five—wrote a memoir about his early years as the starry-eyed child of poor immigrant parents,  before embarking on a career as a writer.  He called it Act One, and it became an instant best-seller, a rags-to-riches inspirational classic, and is still sold in bookstores today.

Now, decades later, his story has finally been adapted for the stage by theatre vet James Lapine, and with its steady mix of comedy and pathos, laughter and sentiment, it’s one of the most entertaining—and heartfelt—shows in town.

It does, indeed, focus only on Hart’s formative years; we meet young Moss, a pale, skinny kid who would rather read than play stickball with his friends; his combative parents; his Aunt Kate, who introduces him to the bright lights of Broadway, collects theatre programs with the fervor of the true aficionado, and whom his father, one painful day, banishes from the family’s apartment forever; and a host of others, from the famous to the not-so-famous, as he struggles to make his mark as a writer.

Santino Fontana, as Hart, is excellent, projecting a genuine warmth, a youthful likeability, every moment he’s on stage (and he’s on stage a lot); it’s hard NOT to root for the kid.  Indeed, everyone in the cast—a number of whom play multiple roles—is wonderful.

And then, of course, there is Hart’s principal mentor, the man who, arguably, taught him how to write, the fellow with whom he collaborated on his first big hit, Once in a Lifetime: George S. Kaufman. Tony Shalhoub does triple duty here—he plays the older Hart, who serves as the evening’s narrator, and Hart’s rough-spoken, bull-headed father—and he does exemplary work with both roles; but it is as Kaufman, Hart’s elder by a number of years, that he truly shines.  Shalhoub’s Kaufman is a hilarious hodge-podge of tics, eccentricities, and oddball mannerisms: he dashes off to wash his hands at the slightest provocation, shares his thoughts with Hart during their frequent marathon brainstorming sessions while lying flat on his back on the floor, and has the silly-looking habit of scratching the back of his head like an itchy monkey at the Central Park Zoo.  He very nearly—but not quite, Shalhoub is far better, and far more professional, than that—steals every scene he’s in. (How Shalhoub could, from moment to moment, even remember what scene he’s in—he bounces from character to character and costume change to costume change with stunning regularity—is anyone’s guess.) It’s a bravura effort, and one that will almost certainly net him a nomination come Tony time.

Andrea Martin as Kate—with an outsized, screwball personality that is much bigger than the diminutive Martin herself—and then as fast-talking agent Frieda Fishbein and, finally, the warm and generous Mrs. Beatrice Kaufman—also flaunts her comedic chops and, when necessary, her dramatic ones, as well.

Lapine (who also directed) keeps the action flowing smoothly, sequing from joke to joke and one touching moment to the next with consummate ease; the costumes and lighting by Jane Greenwood and Ken Billington, respectively, are top-notch; and the rotating, multi-level set by Beowulf Boritt, with its extraordinarily detailed look at the Harts’ tenement apartment, the Kaufmans’ far more opulent living quarters, and much more, is magnificent.

Act One is a hell of a show, a bio-drama-slash-screwball comedy with charm to spare.  Kaufman and Hart would be proud.

(NOTE: Act One will be at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center through June 15th.)

THEATRE REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien