by Ryan Emmons · April 23, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #80 Ryan Emmons comments on Act One at the Vivian Beaumont Theater There are several things you should know to fully understand my experience with Act One. You should know that I have a deep-seated love for Moss Hart’s book of the same title. You should know that my theatre companion (and collaborator) got a migraine, moments before the show and had to go home. You should know that I work in the theatre. These circumstances left me ready and open for the beautiful and deeply felt production that is currently taking place at the Vivian Beaumont theatre at Lincoln Center.
The story of Act One is taken directly from Mr. Hart’s autobiography. We see a young and impoverished Moss Hart fall in love with the theatre (thanks to his Aunt Kate) and work his way into a job as an office boy at a touring office. When asked to find a new play, Hart has the gumption to write his own, and to his surprise, his boss wants to produce it. The play is a failure but it’s still a step forward. Moss is then connected to George S. Kaufman and the two playwrights collaborate on Once in a Lifetime. It’s an uphill battle, but an inspiring tale of following ones dreams, not giving up and having confidence in yourself. When I finally saw Moss Harts’ name on the marquee at the Music Box Theatre toward the end of the play, I was overwhelmed. It made tangible the impossible dream that Moss Hart was fighting for, and reminded me of my own. A few people I have talked to about it have said something along the lines of “of course you loved it, it’s a story for theatre people.” But, although I believe it resonates strongly with those pursuing a career in the theatre, the idea of pursuing your passion is a universal one. Act One is inspiring; I would imagine for everyone.
The production is wonderfully conceived and realized by James Lapine (both director and author). He captures the idea of memory by utilizing three Moss Harts: The childhood Moss Hart who falls in love with theatre (Matthew Schechter), The Moss Hart that begins writing plays and collaborates with Kaufman (Santino Fontana) and the older Moss Hart who remembers his beginnings (Tony Shalhoub). Fontana brings a fire, life and passion to the role that made me root for him, and feel for him, instantly. Shalhoub does a wonderful job setting up the idea of looking back at Hart’s beginnings, but the payoff happens when he assumes the role of the eccentric playwright George S. Kaufman. In this way, Lapine sets up Kaufman as Hart’s memory of Kaufman. I never watched the television series Monk (for which Shalhoub is well known), but from what I know, it prepared Shalhoub well for playing a Kaufman who is very uncomfortable touching objects or other people and who washes his hands several times each work session and has bizarre physical tics. Shalhoub makes these eccentricities intrinsic to the character, real and lovable – but also very funny.
Reading the book, a character that meant a lot to me was that of Aunt Kate. She’s complicated because she is known through the eyes of a child, and she gives him so much even though she is a burden on Hart’s father. Andrea Martin plays Aunt Kate in this production and she is exquisite. She brings energy, humor and tragedy to this formative character in Moss Hart’s life. I loved every minute she was on stage and was glad that she also played Freida Fishbein and Beatrice Kaufman as well.
The idea of memory is also evoked by the gorgeous merry-go-round of a set designed by Beowulf Boritt. Each location of Moss Hart’s story is layered and located upon a large multi-tiered turn-table that spins the story from place to place. It allows for passing images on the way to various locations and builds up the idea that success is a collection of everything that has come before it.
These are just a few standout moments and elements of a production that I found moving and inspirational. All of the acting is outstanding and the production elements all pulled me into the story. I was riveted for nearly three hours, I may have had tears on my cheeks for the majority of that time. They were not tears of sadness, I was seeing a story of collaboration and pursuing one's passion that I have loved for a while now, missing my collaborator, and filled with the feeling that I too am on a path towards my own dreams. Act One makes them feel not only possible, but closer than ever.