Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Saturday through June 15, $77-$137
“These annals are not for those unsentimental about the theatre or untouched by its idiocies as well as its glories,” Moss Hart wrote in his beloved, highly influential 1959 memoir, Act One. “The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection.” Pulitzer Prize-winning writer-director James Lapine (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods) has adoringly adapted the theatrical bible into a superb new play, running through June 15 at the Vivian Beaumont. The play looks back at Hart’s theatrical education as the older Moss (Tony Shalhoub, in one of three roles) watches earlier versions of himself (Matthew Schechter as a boy, Santino Fontana as a naive young man) as his love of theater develops. When Hart was a child, he would sneak off to shows with his aunt Kate (Andrea Martin), much to the chagrin of his English-immigrant father (Shalhoub), who found it a waste of time and money, especially as the family struggled to pay the rent. Hart’s fascination continues through his teenage years, when he gets a job working for jaded old theatrical manager Augustus Pitou (Will LeBow).
Following a series of coincidences and luck, Hart is soon collaborating with the famous Broadway playwright and director George S. Kaufman (Shalhoub), writing Once in a Lifetime upstairs in Kaufman’s ritzy home, where the literati come to celebrate themselves. While Hart is a bundle of nerves, worried that his good fortune could come crashing down at any moment, Kaufman is a whole different kind of bundle of nerves, an obsessive-compulsive man who is afraid of germs, washes his hands constantly, and lies on his back on the floor to think. These scenes between Hart and Kaufman are simply rapturous, the heart of the play — and they are also not from the book. Lapine tracked down the first draft of Once in a Lifetime, compared it to the produced version, and imagined what Hart and Kaufman’s collaboration might have been like. The relationship is handled masterfully as their creative process unfurls, continuing with an out-of-town tryout prior to the highly anticipated Broadway opening, fear of failure hovering over their every move.
Shalhoub (Golden Boy, Conversations with My Father) is ever stalwart in his multiple roles, transforming from the overheated Barnett Hart to the dapper Kaufman to the mature Moss with simplicity and grace. Fontana (Cinderella, Sons of the Prophet) has the appropriate stars-in-his-eyes look as Moss tries to establish the career of his dreams, sharing his news with such theater friends as Dore Schary (Will Brill) — who would go on to direct the all-star 1963 film adaptation starring George Hamilton as Hart and Jason Robards as Kaufman. Beowulf Boritt’s breathtaking, airy, multilevel rotating set seemingly has a life of its own as it travels from 1914 to 1930, depicting poverty and wealth, success and disappointment. Just as Hart’s memoir was a love letter to the theater, so is this estimable Lincoln Center adaptation, a warmhearted production that steers well clear of the kind of sentimentality that Hart and Kaufman so consciously avoided. “It is hard to realize now in these days of television, movies, radio, and organized play groups what all this meant to a child of those days,” Hart wrote in his memoir, which was always meant to be a single volume despite its title. “It was not only the one available source of pleasure and wonder, it was all of them rolled into one.” Such is the joy of this stage version of Act One as well.