BritishTheatre

Published on

April 20, 2014

REVIEW: Act One, Vivian Beaumont Theatre ✭✭✭✭

By

stephencollins

Act One Moss Hart Tony Shalhoub

Act One Photo: Joan Marcus Act One

Vivian Beaumont Theatre

19 April 2014

4 Stars

The first Act of Act One (a new play by James Lapine based upon the biography by Moss Hart of the same name and directed by Lapine now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre) is one of the most perfect, intoxicating and exhilarating first Acts of any modern work.

Hart, one of the great giants of the Broadway stage, wrote his memoir about the passion of a life in the theatre. It has inspired generations. Lapine has built on that great base, and created a very theatrical play about the same topic, which uses a range of familiar and not so familiar devices to tell the human story of the cost, pain and immense joy that comes from a life devoted to making theatre.

This is a play that anyone who has ever set foot on a stage or worked on a production of a theatrical work should see and treasure. It is a play about everyone touched with the desire, the need, the divine spark that makes one want to perform or be performed.

Like all great productions, it has a fantastic set which not only sets the various scenes where the action takes place, but which also, by its mere presence, adds to the understanding of the piece. Beowulf Boritt uses a vast revolve to great effect, the constant spinning sums up the ups and downs of a theatrical life and also shows real life going on (as the set revolves scenes of ordinary domesticity pass by as the set moves to a new location). It's a clever, intelligent insight into the turbulence that is theatrical life.

The various sets include a proscenium arch and auditorium, a manager's office, a struggling artist's home, a successful artist's home, a business meeting place, the foyer of a theatre and other places. They whirl around magically, and each particular place is authentic and real, completely right. And because each is built on a framework, one that shows other spaces behind, there is always the constant presence of other lives, other priorities, the relentless march of the ordinary life.

Jane Greemwood's exquisite costumes and Ken Billington's extraordinary lighting add to the complete picture, providing the depth and colour and sense of each location, each meeting, each step along the way to success in the theatre. Louis Rosen's original score is equally impressive in creating the total effect. Indeed, all of the creatives are at full, co-ordinated and cohesive power.

It is an absolute joy to watch.

The story is a familiar one. Poor family, bad father, lonely intelligent child, well off-eccentric Aunt, well meaning but weak mother - the child becomes entranced by the hope theatre offers. As Hart himself says: "Theatre is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child".

The lonely child becomes an office boy for a theatre producer and writes a play which is produced and fails. He takes work at a hotel, writing skits and directing amateurs and then a friend sends one of his plays to a bona fide Producer who likes it. Another friend sends the same play elsewhere and it lands up with theatrical legend George M Kaufman, who agrees to work with Hart on polishing the script. What happens then is the rest of the journey.

Lapine also directs here and he does it superbly, with great care, real confidence and the expertise borne of a life lived in the theatre. The first Act is funny, sad, joyful, hilarious and tear-jerking in a rolling swathe of real, understandable experiences.

The large cast, with one exception, each play multiple roles. The one exception is Santino Fontana who plays only one role: Moss Hart as a young man. Fontana is utterly captivating, quite superb in every way. He plays the innocent fledgling thespian well while at the same time showing clearly how he learns from what happens to him, both at home and in the various theatrical endeavours with which he becomes entwined. He assiduously depicts the determination a writer must have to succeed, the frustrations, the disappointments, the endless re-writes, the need to hold on to one's convictions. He embodies the central notion of never giving up, always trying to find the way. It's a beautifully modulated and calibrated performance, subtle, sweet and serious - an absolute delight.

And, in the second Act, he gets to display real passion and in this, too, he excels. The stage is always alight when he is on it.

Tony Shalhoub plays three, very different, roles: Hart's father, Kaufman and Moss Hart in later life. It will be astounding indeed if Shalhoub does not win a Tony award for this exceptional turn. I would give it to him now.

As Hart's father, Shalhoub is vicious, stupid and jealous, the epitome of the working man desperate to make ends meet with no interest in education or fancy things like theatre. It's a brutal but compelling performance. As Kaufman, Shaloub is alternatively comic and dignified; you are never in any doubt that this genius is slightly mad, slightly agrophobic, slightly anally retentive, slightly obsessive compulsive, totally paranoid and utterly marvellous. It is as detailed and complete as a performance can be.

As the older Hart, Shaloub is different entirely. Urbane, worldly, the product of his life and times, he brings together Fontana's inherent charm and some of the gloss of Kaufman to produce an older adult obviously the son of both his true parent and theatrical mentor. In this, the most apparently easy of the three tasks, he is utterly sublime.

None of the three characters has anything to do with the other and you could completely believe there were three different actors at work. The speed with which Shalhoub changes from one to the other is often staggering, but he never has a trace of the wrong character when he is on stage as one of them. The sheer theatricality of the enterprise is staggering - but it also reflects, charmingly, the three ways in which Kaufman interacted with Hart: as co-writer, director and actor. It's a simple but incisive and brilliant conceit.

It is replicated, in a slightly different way, with the formidable talent that is Andrea Martin. She too plays three roles: Moss' Aunt Kate, Frieda Fishburn (a powerful, well-connected manager) and Kaufman's wife. Like Shalhoub, she is entirely different in each role.

Her Aunt Kate is archly theatrical, a show-off and selfish, but she has a soft spot for Hart and introduces him to the magic of theatre. At first it seems like Martin is overplaying her hand, that the character is too grotesque: but, actually, she is just finding a clever way to be the theatrical imprint that is stamped on Hart. It works blindingly well.

Fishburn is a tough plain speaking hard business woman who could make any fishwife blush if she chose to. Formidable and plain, she has nothing in common with the vague, flowery, pretentious Kate.

But Martin's best work comes when she is Beatrice Kaufman. She is a silent, graceful assassin, the power behind the throne, but not one afraid to admit her mistakes or let anyone, however talented, have an easy ride. As delicate as chiffon and as cutting as diamond, Martin is superb as the indomitable Beatrice. Her final scene with Fontana is utterly divine, brimming with radiant clarity. She shows that it is not just the "theatricals" who can handle drama.

The rest of the cast do wonderful work and one is never in any doubt who the various actors are playing at any given time. The notion of the threesome carries through in one other way - in the guise of Hart's fellow office boys, who band together for life, supporting each other in theatrical endeavours.

There is another force at play in this respect. The play that Kaufman and Hart work on in Act Two here is Once In A Lifetime, which was a tremulous hit. That play has a trio of vaudevillians at its heart, and the use of the trio motif in Lapine's play reflects that and provides a grace note and a sense of reflective, inspired intention.

Act two of Act One is about fifteen minutes too long, but it never flags too much. If trimmed, the second Act would match the first in terms of satisfying perfection.

There are many truly magical moments in the second Act: Hart fighting Kaufman to save the play with real, intense passion; Kaufman's speech on opening night; Hart's reconciliation, silent and unexpected, with his father; every scene between Hart and Mrs Kaufman and the wonderful party scene where the Kaufmans introduce a startled Moss to Broadway aristocracy. Tears flow as easily as laughs are generated.

This is truly wonderful theatre.

Everyone should see it.

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ABOUT BRITISHTHEATRE

BritishTheatre.com
Opening Night Media Ltd
3rd Floor, 80 St. Martin’s Lane
Covent Garden
London WC2N 4AA

The British Theatre website has been established to celebrate the rich and diverse theatrical culture of the United Kingdom.  Our ethos revolves around encouraging and nurturing the performing arts in all its forms. The spirit of theatre is very much alive and the British Theatre website is at the forefront of delivering news and information to audiences and enthusiasts everywhere. Our team of theatre journalists and reviewers are working hard to cover productions and news.


We are constantly developing the site and are always open to receiving feedback from our readers. Join our mailing list to be kept informed of all the latest news that is of interest to you..