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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Vivian Beaumont


  Tony Shalhoub and Santino Fontana/ Ph: Joan Marcus

During a key scene in the second half of Act One, in which the experienced playwright George S. Kaufman (Tony Shalhoub) is talking to his neophyte partner Moss Hart (Santino Fontana) about cutting their script to their first collaboration, Once in a Lifetime, to the bone so they can see it with clean eyes, it’s almost impossible for audience members at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre not to become aware of an acute sense of irony. For it has long been clear that writer-director James Lapine has failed to take this sage advice to heart in adapting Hart’s much-beloved theatrical memoir of his early years.

While many of the elements that make Hart’s coming-of-age, triumph-over-adversity tale remain inspirational, Lapine’s overly episodic and overlong (two-hour-and-40-minute) treatment of this ultimate showbiz story is surprisingly bloodless. Far too much time is spent on his poverty-driven childhood in the Bronx in the first act, and the second act is a rather too-extended play-by-play of the creation of Once in a Lifetime, including its disastrous try-outs in Atlantic City and Brooklyn. Indeed, the show’s movement is provided less by the rambling plot than by Beowulf Boritt’s stunning, revolving, three-tiered set that captures early 20th-century New York from its most glamorous to its dingiest.

For the most part, though, Act One is watchable enough, especially when the formidable, chameleonic Shalhoub is on stage, perfectly impersonating the neurotic, occasionally dyspeptic Kaufman (he also appears, rather unnecessarily, as the older Hart dispensing bits of narration and, more effectively, as Hart’s harsh-tongued father, Barnett). And the play comes most vividly to life during the all-too-brief appearances of the brilliant Andrea Martin, alternating as Hart’s snobbish, theater-loving aunt Kate, tough-talking agent Frieda Fishbein, and Kaufman’s elegant, loving wife, Beatrice. This peerless star makes each of these characters instantly memorable (aided by the fine costuming of the resourceful Jane Greenwood) and we mourn each of their exit lines.

In addition to questioning his failure to trim the script, one wonders why Lapine has made Hart such a reactive character. Yes, he shows us that this determined young man clearly has a drive to succeed – even talking himself into a job as an office boy for producer Augustus Pitou (Will LeBow) or landing an acting gig on the spot in The Emperor Jones opposite its difficult star-director Charles Gilroy (the always fine Chuck Cooper). But the budding author too often simply gives into the whims of those around him, such as old friend Eddie Chodorov (an effective Bill Army). When Hart finally confronts Kaufman late in the play, after the frustrated older man has decided to abandon their play, you almost want to stand up and cheer.

Perhaps Lapine suspects we can’t help but root for Hart, no matter the circumstances. It’s true that one would have to be heartless to wish anything but success for Fontana, who is already an expert at playing kind-hearted, likeable mensches. And anyone with a smattering of knowledge of theatrical history knows that a happy ending for our hero is in store – and not just the ultimate success of Once in a Lifetime (which ran for more than 400 performances), which changed his life, both personally and professionally. Still, theatergoers deserve a better reason for spending their time and money on this play – especially when they can stay home in their comfy chair and simply read Hart’s own book.


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