Because of the superb performances of Santino Fontana, Andrea Martin and particularly Tony Shaloub, ACT ONE is worth seeing, but this is one of those "why?" shows. Why bother turning Moss Hart's memoir of his apprentice years in show business in the 1920s into a giant, high-budget theatrical production? Clocking in at almost three hours, the play is full of incident, but without a point of view that might make it absorbing. There are two narrative strands here. One is of the poor, uneducated Jewish immigrant who finds a place in theatre. His best friends and fellow office boys will also find success. The other more interesting strand is the fledgling playwright's first collaboration with the already famous George S. Kaufman, brilliantly played by Tony Shaloub, who also plays a handful of other roles. All this is rendered in a great deal of detail. There's no real focus here and no answer to the crucial question the play must ask -- why a dramatization of Moss Hart's memoir? Why has Lapine written this? It's interesting for us theatre historians, but do many people now even know who Moss Hart was? The plays is one of those love letters to the theatre and to those fascinating people who were its major figures in the Golden Age of Broadway.
This is a giant production on an elaborate revolving stage. Beowulf Borritt's set is a complex three-level affair. The period costumes by Jane Greenwood range convincingly from dowdy to chic. James Lapine's action is as busy as the giant revolve. The leading performers somewhat justify this show. Santino Fontana is the most winning leading man in the theatre these days. Here he gives a charming, hyper-kinetic performance as the young Moss Hart, bounding up and down the set's many staircases. Tony Shaloub is masterful as Hart's father, the older Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Andrea Martin is funny and touching as Moss Hart's eccentric amount who introduces him to theatre, then plays the rowdy producer Frieda Fishbein and Kaufman's elegant wife. These performances are greater testaments to the magic of theatre than Lapine's script.
ACT ONE. Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center Theatres, March 25, 2014.