PBS does itself proud: Act One brings theatre into everyone’s living room
by Larry Murray
Coming up soon on the PBS “Live from Lincoln Center” series is the play Act One which I was able to preview, and proves to be simply brilliant in its concept, execution and transition to the home theatre. I can not remember another play that has survived the perilous journey from the stage to the living room with such class and élan.
It is featured as part of the 2015 PBS Arts Fall Festival and premieres on Friday, November 13, 2015 at 9pm on most PBS stations. It runs close to two and a half hours, though they pass far too quickly.
I have seen a lot of live theatre, and theatrical productions filmed for television, but Act One is the first theatrical piece that works as well on screen as it does on stage. The actors are flawless, the script masterful, and never has a stage set worked so well on television. It is clear that enormous amounts of time and creativity were invested in making sure this play worked as well on a flat screen as it did in person in a theatre, not an easy transition to pull off.
Add to these contemporary accomplishments the fact that few have captured the magic of the theatre better than Moss Hart, a poor kid from the Bronx who went on to become a lion of Broadway. Moss Hart, the writer of classic comedies with George S. Kaufman and the director of the original production of My Fair Lady, has captivated theater lovers for over 50 years with his memoir, Act One.
Now another lion of the theater, James Lapine, (we know him as Bill Finn’s collaborator on Putnam County Spelling Bee, Falsettos and Little Miss Sunshine) has fittingly reimagined this memoir for the stage.
Lincoln Center Theater’s gorgeous production pulls out all the stops, creating a world as vivid and transformative as the stage itself. But it’s the strong performances from its first-rate cast, led by Tony Shalhoub, Andrea Martin and Santino Fontana, that anchor the play in real human emotion.
Adapted and directed by Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner James Lapine (Into the Woods, Passion, Sunday in the Park With George), the production is based on Hart’s 1954 memoir “Act One,” chronicling the life of the famed playwright-director from his poor Bronx beginnings to becoming Broadway royalty. The new play opened on Broadway April 17, 2014 after previews that began March 20. Its run ended on June 15 at which time the production was filmed for this telecast.
Fontana (Cinderella, Billy Elliot), Shalhoub (Golden Boy, Lend Me a Tenor) and young actor Matthew Schechter (Newsies) inhabit Hart at different stages of his life.
They are joined by two-time Tony Award winner Martin (Pippin, My Favorite Year), Bob Ari (Frost/Nixon, The Constant Wife), Bill Army (Relatively Speaking), Will Brill (Tribes), Laurel Casillo (Off-Broadway’s Bryan and Kim), Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper (The Life), Steven Kaplan (Off-Broadway’s Book Club), Will LeBow (The Merchant of Venice at A.R.T.), Mimi Lieber (I’m Not Rappaport), Charlotte Maier (The Columnist), Noah Marlowe (Mary Poppins), Greg McFadden (The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial), Deborah Offner (LCT’s Everett Beekin), Lance Roberts (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Matthew Saldivar (Peter and the Starcatcher), Matthew Schechter (Newsies), Jonathan Spivey (Richard III), Wendy Rich Stetson (A Free Man of Color), Bob Stillman (Dirty Blonde) and Amy Warren (August: Osage County).
Here’s how LCT bills the work: “Act One, James Lapine’s new play from the classic autobiography by Moss Hart, deemed one of the finest books about 20th-century American theatre, eloquently chronicles the playwright/director’s impoverished childhood and his determined struggle to escape poverty and forge a career in the theatre. A path which led to his collaboration with George S. Kaufman and their first great success, Once In A Lifetime.”
Act One has sets by Beowulf Boritt, costumes by Jane Greenwood, lighting by Ken Billington, sound by Dan Moses Schreier and original music by Louis Rosen.
Fontana, who recently starred as the Prince in Broadway’s Cinderella, was previously seen Off-Broadway in The Sons of the Prophet and on Broadway in The Importance of Being Earnest, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Billy Elliot and Sunday in the Park with George.