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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Act One
Lincoln Center and YouTube    Summer 2020

American playwright-director Moss Hart's partial autobiography was turned into a delightful stage play by James Lapine and produced at New York's Lincoln Center in 2014. It was recorded for broadcast on the American Public Television network and is now streamed for home viewing.

Hart's story is of a poor boy from Brooklyn introduced to the theatre by a star-struck aunt. Forced to drop out of school, he fell into an office boy job for a third-rate producer, wrote a play that actually got as far as an out-of-town tryout before flopping, and wrote another play that came to the attention of a real producer, who teamed him with established playwright George S. Kaufman.

The writing, rewriting and re-rewriting of Once In A Lifetime take up almost half the memoir and the dramatisation, which ends on the opening night that would change Hart's life. (Hart went on to a happy and successful career as both playwright The Man Who Came To Dinner and director My Fair Lady before dying at 57.)

James Lapine's dramatisation captures the happy atmosphere of can't-believe-his-own-luck that Hart put into the memoir, making for thoroughly upbeat and entertaining viewing.

His mode is to have two narrators, the older, reminiscing Hart played by Tony Shalhoub gradually giving way as Santino Fontana's younger Hart takes over telling his own story, injecting it with the excitement of this-is-happening-to-me-as-I-speak.

In a delightful twist, the elder narrator withdraws just as George S, Kaufman enters the story, allowing Tony Shalhoub to play that role as well.

James Lapine serves as his own director, and it is clearly his intention to present it all as a larger-than-life adventure, with every actor encouraged to play broadly, turning their characters into the hyper-real versions of themselves that a young man might see or an older man remember.

As narrator, Tony Shalhoub's mode is entirely presentational, as a genial tour guide to his character's life, while as Kaufman he is a collection of tics, eccentricities and obsessive-compulsive behaviours punctuated by surprising moments of kindness and generosity to his overwhelmed collaborator.

Andrea Martin bravely plays a trio of near-cartoon characters the eccentric aunt, a pushy agent and Kaufman's elegant wife as near-cartoons, trusting us to discover that she's not just overacting, but realistically acting a heightened memory.

There are also passing appearances by such Broadway monsters as Jed Harris, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woolcott and Harpo Marx, each artfully sketched in as a young man would see them.

Holding it all together is Santino Fontana's wide-eyed innocent. Fontana has the difficult task of anchoring the play in some kind of reality without being dull and colourless compared to the rest, and he succeeds by creating a young Moss Hart who is such an amiable and attractive guy that we wish the best for him and take joy in all the good that comes his way.

The thoroughly professional television version director Matthew Diamond captures all the action and every nuance of performance, as well as a strong sense of being in the theatre.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Act One  2020