Friday, April 18, 2014

‘Act One’: A Play About Rescuing A Play Needs Some Rescuing Itself

Tony Shalhoub and Santino Fontana in 'Act One'
Photo by Joan Marcus

There are many lessons to be learned from watching Act One, James Lapine’s affectionate if overindulgent adaptation of playwright Moss Hart’s classic autobiography of the same title, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. 

Lesson One:  Bio-plays are nearly impossible to pull off.

When they work on stage, it is because the person whose life is being portrayed and the performance by the actor at the center are so thoroughly compelling that the inherent flaws become significantly less important. The current Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill starring Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday is one example where this necessary requirement is amply met.   

On the other hand, there is a high risk of being narrative-heavy, pedantic, superficial, and undramatic. Unfortunately, these adjectives describe Act One, despite solid (though not extraordinary) acting by the entire company. 

Lesson Two:  Factual truth and dramatic truth need not fully coincide.

No one’s autobiography represents unvarnished truth. Rather it represents some variation, filtered through the author’s perceptions, including a certain degree of factual rearrangement, self-justification, and aggrandizement.  Memoirs are not encyclopedia entries. 

A play, no matter the subject matter, need not be a slave to its source material. Act One might have been better served by presenting itself as having been “suggested by” Mr. Hart’s autobiography. Some dramatic license might have made the straightforward narrative a bit more interesting for an audience. As it is, there is almost no dramatic tension, and the character of Moss Hart comes off as someone who breezed his way into a highly successful career in the theater:  “I tried it.  It worked.  Life is good.” 

Lesson Three:  Broadway is no place to do the equivalent of an out-of-town tryout. 

The early preview performance of Act One that I attended ran over three hours. It certainly needed cutting then, and it seemed to me there were several self-contained scenes that could have been removed without impacting the rest of the play at all. Indeed, as I glanced at my watch with greater frequency as the night wore on, I speculated that Mr. Lapine had deliberately included alternative scenes, with the intent of pulling some of them based on how well they played to an audience. (There obviously has been some snipping because they play now clocks in at two hours and forty-five minutes.) 

Lesson Four:  Less is more. 

First, there is Beowulf Boritt’s ungainly tri-level revolving set.  Yes, it is hard to figure out how best to use the Vivian Beaumont’s humongous stage, but director Bartlett Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan managed to subdue it quite spendidly a few years back with the glowing revival of South Pacific, as did director Jack O’Brien and his set designer Scott Pask for the more recent production of Macbeth.  

Second, do Tony Shalhoub and Andrea Martin (both truly excellent actors) really have to play three roles apiece? For instance, why couldn’t the equally talented Santino Fontana serve as the sole narrator instead of sharing the responsibilities with Mr. Shalhoub, who has quite enough to do (and he does do a fine job) as Hart’s father and as George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart’s talented, successful, and neurotic writing partner? 

Ms. Martin—always a joy on stage (including here)—is well occupied as Moss’s Aunt Kate and his theatrical agent Frieda Fishbein. Does she also need to appear as Kaufman’s wife Beatrice, a seemingly lovely person, but whose presence does not add a whit to the play?

Lesson Five:  Show, don’t tell.

Act One is partly a rags-to-riches tale in which a poor boy from the Bronx, son of struggling Jewish immigrant parents, makes it to the big time on the Great White Way. But the core of the play is about the process of developing a successful theatrical work, in this case Hart’s breakthrough hit (with Kaufman), the 1930 comedy Once In A Lifetime. We see a lot of fuss and bother as the pair struggles to save their play from poorly received out-of-town tryouts, but most of what we learn is through “tell” rather than “show.” Perhaps less of the family drama and more showing of the various stages of development of Once In A Lifetime (with actual scenes showing its evolution) would have made for a more compelling play. 

Finally, there is Lesson Six: Never ever ever direct a play that you have written. 

A director has to look at a play through an entirely different set of eyes than those of the writer. Yet Mr. Lapine has chosen to direct Act One himself. See Lessons One through Five for reasons why this was not such a good idea. 

Feel free to tell you friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

1 comment: