Saturday, November 14, 2015

Act One (PBS “Live from Lincoln Center,” June 16, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s PBS Fall Arts Festival presentation was Act One, a new play by James Lapine based on Moss Hart’s 1957 memoir — though as the title suggests, Hart’s book covers only the start of his theatrical career, growing up in a Jewish-American family in  the Bronx (though his dad affected a half-British, half-Irish accent and tried to pass them off as goyim) and relating far more to his aunt Kate (Andrea Martin) than either of his parents. Aunt Kate is a theatre buff who’s always scraping together as much money as she can so she can see Broadway plays — indeed, at the very beginning of the show she’s taken young Moss (Matthew Schechter) to a production of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance and Moss, age 11, is bitten by the theatre bug forever. He’s determined to become an actor, and he manages to bluff his way into a job as office boy for a cheap producer who puts together road companies of plays for places as obscure as Green Bay, Wisconsin (which is far less obscure now than it was then but only because of the pro football team headquartered there). Eventually he writes a play, The Beloved Bandit, in its spare time and persuades his boss to produce it — though he signed it with a pseudonym and there are some anxious moments when his boss and the boss’s partner (a widow who lost her husband on the Titanic) want to meet the mysterious playwright and sign a contract with him, and Moss has to “out” himself as the author. Alas, The Beloved Bandit closes after one week in Rochester, beset with a set that’s falling apart, roof leaks in the theatre that lead to the stage becoming wet in a rainstorm (I remember rainstorms!) and the leading actor falling on his ass during the technical rehearsal, and the clunky dialogue concocted by its first-time playwright.

Moss ends up losing his job as an office boy and he and his three friends from the same gig (including Edward Chodorov and Dore Schary, who also became major writers; Schary became a film producer and studio head of MGM, and in 1963 he wrote, produced and directed the first film version of Act One, starring George Hamilton as Moss Hart and Jason Robards, Jr. as George S. Kaufman) land a job writing and staging variety shows at a resort in the Catskills, where Jewish New Yorkers who could afford it went to spend their summers. Among the performers they have to deal with is an excruciatingly out-of-tune singer attempting Fanny Brice’s hit “Second-Hand Rose.” Moss Hart lands a part as Smithers in a production of The Emperor Jones starring the Black actor Charles Gilpin (for whom Eugene O’Neill wrote it and his other play with a Black male lead, All God’s Chillun Got Wings) — though the actor playing Gilpin here is short, stocky and hardly looks like Paul Robeson (who made the 1933 film of The Emperor Jones with Dudley Digges superb as Smithers, the part young Moss blunders his way through), who took over O’Neill’s two Black roles after O’Neill had thought he’d have to mothball the plays forever once Gilpin retired. (In Act One Gilpin is described as an alcoholic whose fondness for the bottle stems from his inability to find parts for a serious “Negro” actor.) For the most part, Moss has to rely for his income on the Catskills job and one teaching Jewish actors in a workshop in Newark, though he keeps writing — five O’Neill-esque dramas and then, once he realizes his true muse is comedy, a rambunctious farce on the early days of sound in Hollywood called Once in a Lifetime. He briefly catches the interest of producer Jed Harris (Will LeBow) — a man with a reputation so foul that Laurence Olivier, who worked with him in an early-1930’s production called The Green Bay Tree (in which Olivier had to play a man who leaves his wife for a male lover), later admitted that he’d based his famous portrayal of Richard III on Jed Harris — who made his name as producer of Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s mega-hit The Front Page but also made a name as someone who’d string young playwrights along for years with vague promises to produce their scripts and solemn warnings not to shop their plays anywhere else. (In the 1963 film Harris is renamed “Warren Simon” because back then the real Jed Harris was still alive and, though retired, still notoriously litigious.)

Another member of the office boys’ chorus warns Moss of Harris’s reputation and leaks the play to another producer, Sam Harris, George M. Cohan’s former partner and quite the opposite from Jed Harris in temperament and integrity (he’s mentioned in Joe Adamson’s biography of the Marx Brothers as a man so terminally nice that the nastiest thing anyone could recall Sam Harris saying about anyone was, when the change of government in Germany occurred in 1933, he said, “Hitler is not a nice fellow”). Sam Harris says he’ll take the play and produce it if Moss can get the legendary playwright George M. Kaufman (Tony Shalhoub) to rewrite it and direct it, and the result is nearly a year of intensive work and collaboration between the wide-eyed innocent Hart and the weird and reclusive Kaufman. Their relationship starts off on a bad note when Jed Harris gives Hart Kaufman’s home phone number, and Hart calls him. When Kaufman naturally asks Hart where he got his number, and Hart tells him, Kaufman says, “Tell Jed Harris that I’m having it put in my will that when I die I am to be cremated so my ashes can be thrown in his face.” (I’ve heard that line elsewhere, attributed to screenwriter Norman Krasna, who was under contract to Columbia, got a better offer from MGM, and decided the best way to get out from under his Columbia contract was to insult Columbia studio head Harry Cohn and get Cohn to fire him — so he had a Hollywood Reporter columnist put an item in saying that Norman Krasna had made a new will; when he died he was to be cremated and his ashes thrown in Harry Cohn’s face.) What was most remarkable about Act One the book was that it made the process of crafting and honing a new play seem as suspenseful as any action plot, and that’s largely preserved in this production — though at times the play drags and I couldn’t help but wish James Lapine had been able to hook up with his former writing partner, Stephen Sondheim, to turn Act One into a musical. (Their joint masterpiece, Sunday in the Park with George, is also a work about creating art.)

It’s a quite engaging work, though I could have done without Lapine’s device of having the actors playing Moss Hart — Santino Fontana in the bulk of the play and Tony Shalhoub as the middle-aged Hart reminiscing about his career while writing Act One — break character and narrate the story. It’s an interesting counterpoint to Schary’s take on the story in the 1963 film, which is more sentimental (a recurring weakness of both Hart and Schary as artists) and gives much more screen time to the chorus of office boys (one of whom, in the movie, is an aspiring actor named Archie Leach who later became internationally famous as Cary Grant); this version is much more interested in the dynamics of Hart’s family and the way the success of Once in a Lifetime got them out of the Bronx and allowed Hart to support them in relative comfort for the rest of their lives — the scene in which they leave their old apartment and take almost none of their possessions with them because they want to start their new life “clean,” with no traces of the ghetto in their wake, is heartbreaking, and the fact that early on in Hart’s progress he gets invited to a party thrown by Kaufman’s wife Beatrice (Andrea Martin, who also plays Aunt Kate and Frieda Fischbein, the office assistant to Sam Harris who first alerts him to Hart’s play — there are so many actors double- and triple-cast that 40 parts are played by 22 actors) and legendary figures like Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker and Harpo Marx appear (and indulge themselves in what Adamson called “that cold-soup negativity that passes for wit on Broadway” — the moment I saw the actress playing Dorothy Parker insulting everyone for no better reason than that they expected her to, I couldn’t help but remember Nora Ephron’s comment that as a young woman she hung out around a group of aspiring writers, actors and whatevers around Broadway and they decided to play at being the Algonquin Round Table — Ephron got drafted to be Parker because she was the only woman in the group — and when she met Parker and told her this story, Ephron said that after a while it just got boring and Parker said, “The real one was boring, too”). Act One could have been better — Moss Hart’s material seems to have more potential as drama than either Lapine or Schary found in it — but it’s still quite likable the way it is, and kudos to the producers of Live from Lincoln Center for letting us know at the end of the credits just when the performance filmed for the play took place: June 16, 2014.