Let us give thanks for Tony Shalhoub.
While it’s neither fair nor accurate to say that Shalhoub carries the Lincoln Center Theatre production of “Act One” (the show, nominated for five Tony Awards, is such an elephantine beast that nobody could), I can report that Shalhoub is pretty wonderful in his portrayal of playwright George S. Kaufman.
Shalhoub plays him as an eccentric, creative artist and brings amusing warmth to a show that needs every ounce he can deliver.
Unfortunately, Kaufman is a supporting player in this over-produced adaptation of Moss Hart’s 1959 memoir about his lifelong love of the theater and his rise from poverty to establish himself as a Broadway playwright.
Hart and Kaufman, of course, became one of the most successful playwriting teams in the 1930s. Their comedies made them wealthy at a time when American theater was represented by “the well-made play.”
Director James Lapine wrote this adaptation of Hart’s book and decided the way to go was to create a play more or less in the tradition of the bygone era it depicts. The episodic narrative, the enormous cast and the huge two-story set on the big Lincoln Center turntable make for a curious anomaly: an epic physical production for a story that doesn’t really warrant epic treatment.
The energetic and overly sincere Santino Fontana plays Hart with flashes of charm but is so earnest that the character quickly becomes tedious. Much of the story focuses on the creation of Hart and Kaufman’s first collaboration, a Hollywood satire called “Once in a Lifetime.”
I’ve never seen that particular play, which is not regarded as their best work, and nothing in Lapine’s depiction of its creation makes me want to.
Therein lies one of the problems of Lapine’s play. We, the viewers, spend a lot of time with Kaufman and Hart as they birth their creation, adding lines, cutting scenes, discussing structure, dissecting character relationships and considering what makes a line funny.
But since few of us have an emotional investment in their first collaboration, which only scholars would have any active interest in, the viewers become a fly on the wall. We might as well be listening to a couple of math professors.
This play taps into the familiar tradition of immigrants assimilating and making good in America. Hart, the son of Jewish parents from England, lives with his family in a tenement as he struggles to find a toe-hold in the world of theater. When he eventually gets a hit on Broadway, his first decision is to leave the tenement behind and move the family to Manhattan.
Lapine floods the stage with characters — so many that almost everyone except Fontana plays multiple roles. We get three versions of Hart, as a child (Matthew Schechter), as a young man (Fontana) and as a middle-aged narrator remembering the good old days (Shalhoub). Shalhoub also plays Hart’s father.
Andrea Martin pops up in three prominent roles, first as Hart’s theater-loving Aunt Kate, then as Kaufman’s high-society wife, Beatrice, and as manager Frieda Fishbein, who seems to have descended from Edith Prickley, one of Martin’s memorable characters on “SCTV.”
Chuck Cooper does impressive duty as Charles Gilpin, a notable African-American actor/director of the 1920s, company manager Max Siegel and poet Langston Hughes.
There’s nothing wrong with most of the acting in this show. The production is chock-full of nice performances. But at the end of the day, audiences don’t learn much about Moss Hart they can’t find out at the library.
Lapine’s approach is all about anecdotes, historical trivia and the eternal desire to “make it” in show business. It all has a familiar ring to it and brings to mind movies from the 1930s and ’40s.
Beowulf Boritt’s ingenious rotating set is most impressive, but it can’t bridge the distance between the audience and the characters. But when Shalhoub is onstage, “Act One” becomes a different show.
Germaphobic, pathologically shy and often inarticulate, Kaufman as played by Shalhoub is at once recognizably human and utterly unique. It would have been easy to play him as a cartoon, but Shalhoub makes the tougher and better choice: to portray him as a singular, flesh-and-blood guy.
Bob on Broadway
Theater critic Robert Trussell spent last week in New York watching several Tony-nominated shows. Reviews of “All the Way,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” appeared previously in The Star and can be found on KansasCity.com.
Coming up: “Violet,” a musical about a woman’s quest for beauty in the 1960s, and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the rock musical starring Neil Patrick Harris.
The Tony Awards are June 8 and will be broadcast live on CBS.