Second Act for "Act One": Moss Hart's Beloved Show Business Memoir Comes to Life

By Robert Simonson
22 Mar 2014

Moss Hart

The play is novel-like in its breadth. Aside from Fontana, each of the actor plays multiple roles. In most cases, those characters include historical figures still familiar to theatre aficionados. Chuck Cooper plays poet Langston Hughes and producer Max Siegel. Andrea Martin plays George S. Kaufman's wife Beatrice, as well as Hart's agent Frieda Fishbein. Will LeBow plays director-producer Jed Harris, while Bob Stillman is producer Sam Harris. (Or, "Bad Harris" and "Good Harris," as Stillman put it.)

Schechter, too, does double duty, essaying both Moss and his brother Bernie. "The brothers are completely different," he said. "Young Moss Hart is completely passionate about the theatre, he's passionate about school. Bernie's more of a sports person. He likes to go outside and play baseball, play gin rummy."

Shalhoub has the most titanic and singular task. Not only does he play Hart, but also Hart's frequent writing partner, the eccentric, acerbic, wild-haired dynamo Kaufman. Thus, Shalhoub is, in one person, both halves of one of the greatest writing teams in theatre history.

In several cases, being cast in the play has caused the actors to bone up on the source material — a book that was once a de facto must-read in theatre circles. "I was completely unfamiliar with the book," laughed Cooper. "I'm not the most well-read person on the planet. I leave that to my smart wife."

"I read it many many years ago as a course in college," Martin said. Once cast, she picked it up again. "I read it with many years of experience behind me and it had a much different meaning."

If Lapine is intimidated by the responsibility of adapted a beloved theatrical text, he isn't letting on. "The only thing daunting about it is when I think about people coming to see it, because there's an expectation that they've read it, and they have certain scenes in their head, and they had certain expectations," he said. "I think if you read it as a young person it is very resonant in a way it isn't for older people."

The Hart children, at least, are satisfied.

"What he's done to illustrate to the arc of my father's life as a piece of theatre is just fantastic," said Catherine Hart.

That people are able to hear how Moss Hart spoke and thought — not how he created fictional characters, but how he talked as himself — was very important to Christopher Hart. "He was able to use his own voice in this one instance," he said.