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James Lapine’s stage version of “Act One,” Moss Hart’s 1959 autobiography, dates from 2014, when the show ran in the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center’s 1,200-seat Broadway house. I reviewed it live and had no reservations of any kind: It was one of the most satisfying shows I saw that year, on Broadway or anywhere else. I didn’t see the PBS version, though, perhaps because I was skeptical about how Beowulf Boritt’s triple-decker turntable set would look on TV. If so, my worries proved to be unfounded. “Act One” all but explodes off the small screen…
Hart, who died in 1961, is best remembered today for the stage comedies that he co-wrote with George S. Kaufman and for “Act One.” In it, he tells how a stage-struck second-generation Jewish American raised in poverty in the Bronx became one of the most popular playwrights of his day. The book ends on the morning after “Once in a Lifetime,” Hart’s first collaboration with Kaufman, opened to rave reviews in 1930. It is, quite literally, an incredible tale, and Hart embroidered certain parts of it in the telling, but the greater part of “Act One” is true—he mostly sinned by omission—and no one has ever written a better or more poignant backstage memoir.
Dore Schary turned “Act One” into a perfectly frightful movie in 1963, which may explain why no one ever tried to make a play out of it until Mr. Lapine gave it a shot. In his hands, it became a kind of pageant, a 22-actor extravaganza with two narrators, Hart in middle age (Tony Shalhoub) and in youth (Santino Fontana), plus a third actor, Matthew Schechter, who plays him as a child. By all rights the results should have been top-heavy and lumbering, but Mr. Lapine’s version moves with light-footed agility, in part because of Mr. Boritt’s set, which catapults the audience from scene to scene with near-cinematic velocity….
* * *Read the whole thing here.
A montage of scenes from Act One: