Painstaking struggle takes on an ethereal glow in the warm shadow of success. As stars align, disjointed memories reveal themselves as perfectly complimentary pieces of a seemingly predestined puzzle. Time-honored playwright and director Moss Hart has given theater folk permission to indulge in such melodramatic sentiments ever since Act One, the bestselling memoir about his ascent from the Bronx to Broadway, hit shelves in 1959.
Hart's inspirational rags-to-riches memoir seems to have been tailor-made for the stage, the playwright having already sprinkled the book with embellishments to suit his theatrical tastes. Multiple Tony Award winner James Lapine has taken up the cause of completing the tome's theatricalization, now on display at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. A playwright destined for a similarly celebrated place in the theater annals, Lapine's adaptation handily wrangles this Broadway Odyssey into two fluid acts that maintain the original text's humor and hearty sentimentality.
We meet Hart as a boy, living in poverty in a small Bronx apartment with his two parents, a handful of boarders, and his flamboyant Aunt Kate — a faux aristocrat (perfectly costumed by Jane Greenwood) who first exposes young Moss to the infectious world of theater. Andrea Martin is without the trapeze that carried her to Tony victory in last season's Pippin, but the actress carries plenty of pomp and circumstance in her haughty manner alone, blending hot air with a lovable warmth that establishes the significance of the bond between Aunt Kate and Moss (played in his early years by the talented Matthew Schechter). She unknowingly sets Moss on his path, which takes him through a job as an office boy for theatrical producer Augustus Pitou (a perfectly embittered Will LeBow); a short career as an actor opposite the great Charles Gilpin (an imposing Chuck Cooper); several seasons as a social director at Catskills summer camps; and finally, a collaboration with famed playwright George S. Kaufman (the hilariously obsessive-compulsive and anti-sentimental Tony Shalhoub) on what would become his first Broadway hit, Once In a Lifetime.
Many of Hart's misadventures along the road to fame and fortune have been left on the cutting-room floor for the sake of compressing this hefty tale into its current (and still hefty) three-hour package. The barreling pace of events leaves little time for the audience to process the desperation and abandon with which Hart struggles to break into the theater. By the time we feel the impact of a roadblock, Moss, most likely, has already taken a monumental leap forward in his career, making the earlier life-threatening blow seem like a minor nuisance.
The play's narrative structure, however, allows for some moments of pause within the streamlined story. An older, stately Hart (also played by Shalhoub) presides over the unfolding events from every corner of Beowulf Boritt's towering set, wistfully gazing upon a nostalgic montage of the lightning-bolt moments of his youth. He frequently shares the stage with his younger self, played by Santino Fontana, who shares Shalhoub's narrative duties while also playing out the anecdotal history of Hart's Broadway-playwriting debut. Fontana beautifully captures the portrait of a dreamy, energetic young man Hart paints in his memoir, flying up and down the endless sets of staircases that revolve around the stage like slides settling in under the lens of a microscope.
Act two of Act One, however, may not be for the theatrical faint of heart. The second half of the play focuses exclusively on Kaufman and Hart's process of writing…and rewriting….and rewriting Once In a Lifetime before its Broadway premiere. Theatrical collaboration is a mysterious beast filled with unimaginable tedium and torturous battles of will that Lapine, an experienced collaborator himself (most often with the brilliant Stephen Sondheim), has translated impeccably to the stage. Unfortunately for us, this means a heaping spoonful of tedium that we must endure until we are finally rewarded with the fairy-tale ending we've been waiting to see.
The syrupiness of the heartwarming Horatio Alger story is not lost on Lapine, who borrows some of the self-deprecating self-awareness peppered throughout Hart's book to mitigate its saccharine aftertaste. After all, as Shalhoub narrates, "Life often imitates bad plays." Still, Lapine does not shy away from celebrating the divine radiance that continues to be attributed to success in the theater — a mythic dimension that generations of future "Moss Harts" will hopefully still dream of conquering.