Review Roundup: ‘Act One’

Act One, James Lapine’s stage version of Moss Hart’s best-selling 1959 memoir of the early years of his career as a playwright, opened April 17 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater for a limited run through June 15. Tony winner Lapine (Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George) also directs a cast headed by Santino Fontana (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella), Emmy winner and Tony nominee Tony Shalhoub (Monk, Golden Boy), and Tony winner Andrea Martin (Pippin, My Favorite Year). Narrated by Fontana as the younger Hart and Shalhoub as the older version of the author, the play follows the hero’s struggles from a cramped Bronx apartment to a disastrous out-of-town try-out for his first play to collaborating with the eccentric George S. Kaufman (also played by Shalhoub) on the hit comedy Once in a Lifetime.

The critics were divided with some finding the nearly-three-hour show a delightful tribute to the theater and others calling it overstuffed and overlong. Ben Brantley of the New York Times acknowledged Lapine may have bit off more than he could chew, but that the sterling performances of Shalhoub and Fontana more than made up for the play’s flaws. Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press, David Cote of Time Out New York, and Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal were among those in the pro-Act One camp. The naysayers included Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News, Elisabeth Vincentelli of the Post, Marilyn Stasio of Variety, and David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter, who called the play a “botched attempt” at adapting Hart’s work. However, all praised the acting and Beowulf Borrit’s complex, revolving set. Here are excerpts from the major reviewers.

Tony Shalhoub stars in 'Act One' on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Tony Shalhoub stars in ‘Act One’ on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

 

Ben Brantley, New York Times
“Since Hart is the heart of Act One, which has been warmly adapted by James Lapine from Hart’s 1959 memoir of the same title, Mr. Shalhoub and Mr. Fontana’s shimmering performances are reason enough to celebrate—and to heave a sigh of relief. If the lively but overblown production that surrounds them isn’t always up to their high standards, I’m still not grousing.”

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News
“The new Moss Hart bioplay, Act One, is affectionate, handsome and overstuffed. Clocking in at close to three hours, this love letter to a homegrown writer and his rags-to-riches rise needs extra postage.”

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
“[T]he worst part is that Lapine misses out on the book’s heart. There’s no sense of the Harts’ crushing poverty, and Moss’ Catskills camp adventures are chucked off in five minutes. Toning down Hart’s struggles makes his meteoric rise seem oddly easy.”

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press
“It makes perfect sense that [Hart’s] autobiography is onstage. And no less a modern theater icon than James Lapine has adapted and directed the play, using the stage thrillingly in a way the book could not.”

Linda Winer, Newsday
“Autobiographical peaks and valleys that read with such charm and intensity in Hart’s words are translated here into almost three hours of busy, flatline narrative.”

Elysa Gardner, USA Today
“An excellent Tony Shalhoub is cast as both the older, more wistful Moss, who helps narrate and provides dry asides, and a distinctly fussy, socially awkward Kaufman. Shalhoub milks the latter’s eccentricities for full effect while conveying the fundamental decency that helps sustain Lifetime on its rocky road.”

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal
“The result is a thrillingly well-staged play that runs for two hours and 40 minutes but feels much shorter. Not only is “Act One” light on its theatrical feet, but it has the open-hearted impact of a melodrama—one that has the advantage of being true.”

David Cote, Time Out New York
“Lapine has a superb cast at his disposal—the thoroughly charmingFontana, the drolly tetchy and bilious Shalhoub, and, in a few crucial, nurturing mother-figure roles, the grace-filled Andrea Martin. Beowulf Boritt’s massive, tri-level rotating set is a wonder to behold, twirling us from cold-water tenement to sumptuous hotel suite in a twinkling.”

Marilyn Stasio, Variety
“It’s a two-part tale in Lapine’s adaptation, introduced and frequently commented upon by two narrators—the still wet-behind-the-ears Moss, played by Fontana, and the older, more reflective Hart, played by Shalhoub.  That’s one narrator too many, in a production lumbered with too many of these, too many of those, and much too much of just about everything else.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter
“Beowulf Borrit’s ingenious set for Act One is a multi-story marvel… But it’s problematic in a work fundamentally about the magic of the theater that all the magic is confined to the design department.”

Melissa Rose Bernardo, Entertainment Weekly
“As we watch Hart and Kaufman worry and squabble and wrestle with their play-in-progress, the irony is inescapable: How can Act One—a show that spends so much time dissecting and trying to perfect another show — be so unaware of its own imperfections?”

David Finkle, Huffington Post
“The truth is there isn’t a weak performance among the 22-member cast, many of whom have to be as busy backstage as on. [Bob] Stillman, Chuck Cooper, Bill Army, Deborah Offner — all of them turn in slick, adept, fast characterizations. And congrats to director Lapine for organizing this circus.”