Moss Hart’s Act One is a very special book, particularly for theater people and the irrevocably stagestruck. Unlike most theatrical memoirs, Hart’s doesn’t hurry over early struggles in order to revel in later successes but instead takes you step by painful step through his very long apprenticeship, making you feel the cumulative weight of every setback he experiences while living with his family in abject poverty. It’s so vividly detailed and evocatively written that you share in all his doubts and fears and feel the roll-with-the-punches steadiness of his determination. In the last third of the book, when he’s writing his first play, Once in a Lifetime, with George S. Kaufman, you understand deeply why he can’t afford to give up, even when Kaufman is ready to do so.
Adapting Act One for the stage is surely an irresistible idea, even if the book already inspired a disastrous 1963 film version starring George Hamilton. The distinguished director James Lapine has written and directed this version for Lincoln Center Theater (through at least June 15) so that a young Hart (Santino Fontana) and an older Hart (Tony Shalhoub) come out front and narrate the story directly to the audience. There’s no urgency and no sense of the desperation that drove Hart forward; this lack of intensity extends to the narrative portions of the play, too. When Hart’s father orders his genteel and difficult Aunt Kate (Andrea Martin) from their house—a harrowing and complex scene in the book—it has little impact, chiefly because we’ve barely met Aunt Kate before she’s thrown out on the street.
In this iteration of Act One, we never feel Hart’s urge to succeed or his wolfish appetite. (Fontana, who was so touching in Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet, is far too uncomplicatedly sweet as the younger Hart; the part calls for more ravenous shadings.) Lapine has chosen to omit the most powerful scenes in the book, in which Hart hit his nadir as a camp director for a godforsaken resort up in rural Vermont; at the end of a grueling and humiliating summer, the camp manager ran off without paying him, and Hart and his brother had to hitchhike home without money for food. By skipping this crucial section and offering instead a long party scene in which Hart meets a lot of famous people, Lapine goes directly against everything that’s great about Hart’s memoir, sacrificing embarrassing truth for the kind of namedropping that Hart scrupulously avoided. Shalhoub gives a fine and inventive comic performance as the eccentric Kaufman, but for those who haven’t read Act One, it would be easy to wonder just why we’ve been sitting through a longwinded recitation of Hart’s early experiences without any of the dramatic, confessional intimacy that makes the book a classic.