'Act One' isn't the show Hart would have written

BROADWAY REVIEW: "Act One" in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center

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"Act One"

"Act One" (April 17, 2014)

NEW YORK — "Inevitably," wrote Moss Hart in "Act One," his impeccable showbiz autobiography, "I shy away from the hackneyed picture of unhappy child in poor circumstances who triumphed over difficulties and achieved success."

Hart, a savvy fellow, was playing a very fine bit of defense there. For that, of course, is exactly what happened to the famous comedy writer, who rapidly removed himself, by virtue of talent, drive and good fortune, from the hell of "unrelieved poverty" in the Upper Bronx all the way to Broadway, a distance far greater than geography suggests. And that is precisely the story told in "Act One," an incomparably etched picture of the long-vanished Broadway world of the early 20th century.

Hart just knew — boy, did he know — how to dodge his own cliches. Or justify them. "Hackneyed is sometimes relevant," he goes on to say, a zesty slyness oozing from the page.

In an autobiography, so stipulated. In a work for the theater? Watching James Lapine's long, laborious and, well, hackneyed, Lincoln Center adaptation of Hart's book, you are constantly struck by the notion that Hart himself, had he been a creative consultant on the project, would have been leaping out of his seat, ready to cut some of his own scenes (plenty!), rewrite others and restage almost everything, being a fellow who understood the difference between autobiography and a work for the theater, between life and carefully constructed artifice. He knew the dance around the archetype without its actual embrace, the revelation of joy and the sorrow that cuts the treacle. And he would, I think, have been pushing for many more truths along with many more laughs.

Part of the problem here lies with Lapine's self-directed adaptation which, although understandably faithful to its justly beloved source, does not theatricalize it sufficiently — an issue laid bare at one point in the second act when various influential figures in Hart's life are seen at one of his openings, popping up with words of support followed by signing off with their names, even though we all know very well who they are, being that we've been watching them all night. Since Hart's story uses up many characters on the hero's journey to good fortune, Lapine has forged an elaborate doubling and tripling scheme that requires Tony Shalhoub, the show's star, to play Moss Hart himself, Barnett Hart (Moss' dark, self-loathing father) and George S. Kaufman, the more established playwright with whom Hart was thrilled to collaborate on the comic masterpiece "Once in a Lifetime" — the back story behind which takes up much of the stage time.

This, frankly, turns out to be too much of a burden for Shalhoub, who is delightfully droll as the brilliantly neurotic Kaufman (it's a beautifully admiring bit of acting and great fun to watch) but much less secure as the narrator and as the elder Hart, a British immigrant whose dreams and masculinity are stymied by extreme poverty. It's not so much that those characterizations are weak; more that you strangely resist having to watch the same guy play all these roles, especially as part of a 22-strong company of actors. (Mimi Lieber is admirably rooted as Hart's long-suffering mother, Lillie.) Santino Fontana is on hand to play the younger Hart — at times, he and Shalhoub go at the narrative role together — and Fontana is fine and boyishly charming as far as that all (and he) goes, but you're still left with the sense that the storytelling device has not been cracked.

"Act One" is staged on a huge, multiunit, multistory, framing-heavy setting from Beowulf Boritt, all installed on top of the Vivian Beaumont's turntable, which allows you, in theory, to see multiple locales at once, upstage, downstage, all over the stage, and all over town, out to the Bronx and back to Broadway. A piano player tickles the ivories at the rear. There is something apt about the choice of such a romantic urban edifice for this particular piece of material: Hart was an unreconstructed maximalist, living large, at least in his prose and self-dramatization.

But the problem, and it is a crippling issue, is that "Act One" fundamentally is structured as a world of sharp contrasts: the hell of the one-room apartment Hart shares with this family versus Kaufman's commodious quarters, with the fancy parties twinkling on the lower level, or, just as important, the divide at an out-of-town tryout between a scene that is working and one that is dying the most terrible of early deaths. Those all are sharp edges, fundamental opposites and rarely are they explicated well by a set that keeps on turning, turning through the years, especially one that never really shows you neither the squalor of the Upper Bronx nor, fully, the bright lights and sensuality of the Broad-way.

A design of this scope limits the imaginative convention — but this one does not fill in that gap with viable vistas. It will be interesting to see Lapine's show in the future, staged far more simply and, I'll wager in advance, far more effectively, especially if the acting tracks are rethought.

There are, within the company, some broad but entertaining performances, including Andrea Martin as Aunt Kate, the relative who first encourages the interest of the young Hart in the theater, to his father's chagrin. Here again, though, Martin (who also plays Kaufman's influential wife, Beatrice) has too much to do, and she does none of it quickly. Nonetheless, it is a piece of out-there acting very much in sync with the Hart landscape, and thus it somehow feels right here and a performance that might, in a different era, had shown up on one of Hart's own plays, albeit moving more rapidly and theatrically through time and space.

"Act One" plays in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at New York's Lincoln Center; lct.org.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

theaterchat.chicagotribune.com

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