Act One

A rose-colored scrim drapes the stage before each act of Act One, a dramatized version of Moss Hart’s memoir of becoming a playwright. The play, written and directed by James Lapine, is a big wet kiss to American theater of the 1910s and 20s. The Algonquin denizens make quick, funny cameo appearances; the first act closes with an uplifting view of Broadway marquees. Indeed, the narrative of the entire second act (and perhaps it’s not the strongest one) is whether and how Hart can find a way to write and rewrite his first well-supported production, Once in a Lifetime, into a successful New York show. Well, to paraphrase Hart, often life doesn’t follow the most dramatically urgent pattern.

Beowulf Borritt’s set, three levels on a revolve, is a stunner, with details that give the multiple locations of the story extra character: a stairway with a step down before you can go up; the framework of a New York rooftop water tank.

The story unfolds linearly, but it is framed as the reminiscences of an older Hart, played by Tony Shalhoub. Matthew Schecter plays Hart as a boy, but most of the work goes to the adorable Santino Fontana, who plays Hart as a young man. Fontana’s Hart never walks down the stairs when he can run; he is eager to volunteer for a job that he’s not ready for; sometimes his mouth runs away with his thoughts. Over the course of the play, his dialect shows Hart’s voice modulating from the rough working class English that his parents and playmates speak to the urbane tones of the mature Hart.

Shalhoub doubles as Hart’s abusive father Barnett, but he comes into his own as Hart’s collaborator, George S. Kaufman, all his tics and quirks on parade. Kaufman, pathologically concerned with hygiene, would go to any lengths to avoid shaking hands with someone; Shalhoub’s balletic avoidance maneuvers are a delight.

Andrea Martin does nicely with the three roles of Hart’s poor-relation aunt Kate (early encourager, nay enabler, of Hart’s budding interest in theater); Frieda Fishbein (Hart’s agent with a good dash of Edith Prickley); and Kaufman’s wife Beatrice, the quiet power behind the throne.

  • Act One, written and directed by James Lapine, from the autobiography by Moss Hart, Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, New York