Moss Hart has a lot to answer for. Just think how many future brain surgeons and rocket scientists were lost, lured to Gotham to pursue a theater career after reading “Act One,” the eminent Broadway playwright-director’s captivating 1959 showbiz autobiography. Still, Hart can’t be blamed for the missteps of playwright-director James Lapine in adapting that seminal book. Having learned the tricks of the trade from the great George S. Kaufman, Hart would surely have taken a scalpel to this verbose, unwieldy, overacted production — but kept the spotlight on winning star turns by Santino Fontana and Tony Shalhoub.
“Act One” is the storybook success tale of an underprivileged, barely educated, stage-struck Jewish kid from the Bronx named Moss Hart (Fontana) who works his way up the ladder from office boy in a two-bit Broadway producer’s office to an inspired writing partnership, at age 25, with the considerably older, famously eccentric, and already legendary George S. Kaufman (Shalhoub). The journeyman scribe emerges from this thrilling and harrowing apprenticeship with “Once in a Lifetime,” the 1930 satirical spoof of Hollywood that would launch his career. (“Act One” lingers on this intoxicating moment of a tyro writer’s first success, but Kaufman and Hart would continue their collaboration with a string of memorable shows, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “You Can’t Take It With You” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”)
It’s a two-part tale in Lapine’s adaptation, introduced and frequently commented upon by two narrators — the still wet-behind-the-ears Moss, played by Fontana, and the older, more reflective Hart, played by Shalhoub. That’s one narrator too many, in a production lumbered with too many of these, too many of those, and much too much of just about everything else.
That applies to Beowulf Boritt’s massive set, which takes up the entirety of the Beaumont’s huge revolve. The concept actually sounds quite smart: a two-tiered, skeletal structure of multiple scene settings, walls open and divided by staircases so that, each time the stage revolves, all the past, present, and future scenes in Hart’s life can be viewed in perspective. That works for extended scenes in Kaufmann’s office, but with frequent scene changes the effect is of a whirling carousel of claustrophobic boxes.
The first act moves at a sluggish pace, since it’s basically the same overly familiar coming-of-age narrative of every artistically inclined boy who feels alienated from his working-class background and yearns to find his rightful place in the big, wide world. In this theatrical variation, young Mossy (Matthew Schechter, quite a personable kid) is initiated into the magical world of the theater by his stagestruck aunt Kate, a wonderfully sympathetic character in the book but a horridly selfish snob in Andrea Martin’s overcooked performance. Like Mossy, we can’t wait to get out of his wretched family’s dreary apartment.
Fontana steps into the role, and not a moment too soon, once Moss starts making his way up the career ladder by shopping his first play (a turkey called “The Beloved Bandit”) to various producers. Will LeBow is amusingly sleazy as Augustus Pitou and appropriately flamboyant as Jed Harris. But the show doesn’t really come to life until the end of the first act, when George S. Kaufman, the grand master of wit, finally makes his entrance.
Although Shalhoub has been kept busy so far, with his thankless double duties as unnecessary Hart narrator and heartless Hart father, he’s a complete delight as the meticulous, obsessive, and thoroughly intimidating workaholic with absolutely no social graces and the intelligence not to care. The thesp has his endearing and oft-parodied mannerisms down pat, along with the droll delivery.
But while Shalhoub and Fontana have perfected their comic routine — with Hart coming up with the big ideas and Kaufman cutting them down to size — it soon settles into a repetitive pattern. A cocktail party with notable wits Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott among the guests (all fashionably dressed in Jane Greenwood’s stylish period costumes) is a rare and welcome break from the endless typing and talking and talking and typing. But for the most part, there’s no dramatic correlation between the manuscript pages flying out of the typewriter and the finished scenes onstage.
There is one wonderful moment in Act Two, however, when Lapine shows us what might have been. As Kaufman and Hart sit at the typewriter up in their office, picking and poking at a problematical scene in the play, down below, a trio of actors playing the three vaudevillians for whom the dialogue is being written keep stopping to reset their lines, as dictated from above. It’s clever, it’s witty, it’s a very, very funny scene. And if George S. Kaufman were really looking down from above, there might have been a lot more of them in this play.