“Act One” officially opens at Lincoln Center later this week, but this weekend I saw a preview showing of it. It’s good. Not great — the story of the life of Moss Hart, the playwright who grew up poor in the Bronx and had only a eighth-grade education (he had to go to work) but who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
The production is magnificent — a rotating set, great period costumes, top-notch acting from Tony Shalhoub (as an older Moss Hart, narrating Our Town-style; as the father of the 11-year-old Moss Hart; and as George S. Kaufman, who works with the young adult Moss Hart); the young adult Hart is strongly played by Santino Fontana, who may be best known as the voice of the evil prince Hans in the movie musical “Frozen”; and Andrea Martin, nailing multiple roles.
The play (written and directed by James Lapine), though, moves a bit slowly in, yes, Act 1, and feels very much like a less madcap Moss Hart play — a little dated in trying to stay true to the source material, Hart’s 1959 autobiography about his Dickensian early 20th-century life. What also seems dated is the ease of access Hart had to some of the brightest minds of his day, despite his lack of education. Perhaps a 21st century analogy would be talented computer coders and programmers who drop out of college and gain access to the best and brightest in that field.
What was most interesting to me though was what happened before I saw the show. I wanted to see the play in no small part because I had acted in Hart and Kaufman’s “You Can’t Take it With You” in high school, back in the 1980s.
At work, one of my coworkers, when I told her I was going to see the play, said, “I performed in ‘You Can’t Take it With You’ in high school.” She’s in her 60s, which means her high school days were in the 1960s. And also at work, another colleague said, “I was in ‘You Can’t Take it With You’ in high school!” That colleague, however, is an intern, a college senior, and her high school days were in the 2000s.
There it was, three generations of people all working at the same place all having been in the same play, which was first performed 1936 and won the Pulitzer in 1937.
So if you love the theater, and if you’ve been in any of Hart’s plays (such as “The Man Who Came to Dinner”), then this play is highly recommended.