“Too slow,” barked the guy directly behind me, immediately after act one of Act One. This view seems to be the consensus. A friend’s one-word review of the show was “loooooong” and other friends have told me the same. The main reason I hadn’t been particularly interested in seeing it was its three-hour running time.
But who cares if it’s long? I got a huge kick out of it: it’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s full of character, and it’s about my favorite subject, Broadway. Act One is a dramatization of Moss Hart’s popular 1959 memoir about growing up poor in the Bronx and falling in love with theater, eventually dazzling Broadway with Once in a Lifetime, his first collaboration with George S. Kaufman. When I mentioned Kaufman and Hart to my roommates this morning, they hadn’t heard of either man. I suppose this isn’t that surprising; 1930s Broadway playwrights aren’t exactly well known today. But as Frank Rich pointed out, Moss Hart was a superstar during Broadway’s golden age. As an indication of how highly people thought of him, here’s Alan Jay Lerner, who worked with him on My Fair Lady:
Moss Hart. Moss Hart, as I was to find out, had no understudies. He is and forever will be irreplaceable to more people in more ways than any man I have ever known. When he died in 1961 it was more than simply the death of one man. It seemed as if the gods had broken in and robbed us of some of our most precious humanity. … He was in every sense of the word a man of the theatre, a gentleman of the theatre, and the last of his breed. (The Street Where I Live, 1978, p. 71-72).
(Alan Jay Lerner, you are wonderfully over the top.) Clearly, people loved this guy. Anyway, this is Moss’s rags-to-riches autobiography, as adapted and directed by James Lapine. The role is performed by three actors: Matthew Schechter as a boy, Santino Fontana as a young man, and Tony Shalhoub as a fiftysomething narrator. The first act deals primarily with Hart’s childhood and early ambitions; the second act is mostly about the genesis of Once in a Lifetime. Why did I like it so much? I can think of three major reasons:
- First, it’s wonderful to be immersed in the world of Old Broadway (you must of course pronounce it the old fashioned way, BroadWAY, instead of our BROADway). Even the size of the cast (twenty plus actors!) feels incredibly retro. I only wished it was actually taking place in the Music Box, instead of Lincoln Center‘s Vivian Beaumont. But you can’t have everything in life.
- Second, even if the show were a real stinker, Beowulf Boritt’s set alone might be worth the ticket price. What an astounding design. It’s a massive circular structure on a turntable, becoming everything from Moss’s Bronx home, to Kaufman’s fancy townhouse, to a theater, to various offices and hotel rooms, and even more. It’s difficult to convey the scale of this thing. This is the most impressive set I’ve seen in ages. (Here are a few pictures, though I’m not sure these shots really do Boritt justice.) It’s also set towards the back of the stage, so it never really overwhelms the action. At least not from where I was sitting on the side.
- Third and most importantly, there’s the colorful characters. Nearly all of the best ones are given to Andrea Martin (fabulous as Moss’s dotty, theatre-obsessed aunt; a spitfire theatrical agent; and Mrs. Kaufman) and Tony Shalhoub. Oh, Tony Shalhoub, what you do for this play! Like Ms. Martin, he’s got three roles. In addition to playing the mature Moss, he also puts on a cockney accent as Moss’s dad Barnett. But really he’s best as George S. Kaufman, Moss’s mentor and great partner. The role of Kaufman shares some OCD tendencies with Mr. Shalhoub’s TV detective Monk, so I suppose he’s is in his element here. Whatever. Mr. Shalhoub’s Kaufman is hilarious and compelling and lovable and brilliant and a total weirdo.
Interestingly, Moss Hart himself is still something of an everyman at this point, just a kid that wants to make a splash on Broadway. For the vast majority of the play, the role is Mr. Fontana’s, and he’s got the hardworking, likable persona down pat. But the character isn’t incredibly dynamic. If you love this show, it will be for the recurring characters like Sam Harris (Bob Stillman), Jed Harris (Will LeBow), and any character played by Mr. Shalhoub or Ms. Martin.
It’s definitely not a perfect play. About that length: I wish James Lapine had let someone else direct, or had found a collaborator to help write the thing, or something. The parts that could use some cuts are so obvious to me. (Any of those cameos with the celebrities of the day, really. What’s the bit with Langston Hughes doing in there? Why do we need to meet Edna Ferber for 90 seconds?) Still, I’d call Act One methodical rather than plodding. There’s a lot of story to be told here, and I found the pacing fine. By the time Once in a Lifetime, which had an incredibly arduous development process, opens as a smash hit on Broadway, I felt like I’d earned the emotional payoff.
There are shows I pick apart ruthlessly, and there are shows I allow to get away with murder. Act One is probably the latter. On the way home, I wondered if Act One wasn’t my equivalent of the feel-good sports movie. If that sounds dismissive, I don’t mean for it to be. I was just so delighted with my trip to 1920s Broadway that I’d forgive it if it ran a little long, or got overly sentimental in places. Here was a chance for all of us to celebrate the magic of Broadway, and to see some fabulous sets, and to experience wonderful performances. And all we can say about it is that it’s long?