To paraphrase Moss Hart, it's a brave writer who would contrive this show: Japes Lapine's adaptation of Act One, playwright-director Hart's best-selling 1959 autobiography that's become an object of inspiration/adoration for anyone seeking a career in front of—or behind—the footlights. (Ask any actor, playwright, director, or designer you know if they've read Act One. If they haven't, give them a copy.) And it's fitting that Lapine would be the one to transfer this ultimate showbiz story from page to the Lincoln Theater Center's Broadway stage. Like Hart, Lapine is both a playwright—he penned the libretti for Falsettos and Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, and Passion—and director, helming a variety of shows from those musicals to a revival of The Diary of Anne Frank.
But a drama-centered story is no guarantee of a dramatic story—a fact that's made abundantly clear in a lovingly presented but largely listless 2 hours and 40 minute span at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Lapine has chosen an unnecessarily cumbersome two-narrator approach, using both a younger Moss (Cinderella's Santino Fontana, royally charming) and an older Moss (Tony Shalhoub). Shalhoub also plays young Moss' father and, most memorably, Hart's tic-filled, emotionally detached collaborator George S. Kaufman. Eccentricity comes easily to Shalhoub after his award-winning eight-season stint as an OCD-afflicted detective on TV's Monk. The actor is so quirkily charming as Kaufman—and such a good match for Fontana as his high-strung extroverted writing partner—that it's almost a letdown when he morphs back into Moss.
One narrator surely could have guided us through the whirlwind first act, which travels to a Bronx tenement, a Times Square office, a Rochester out-of-town tryout, a Broadway theater, and a Catskills summer camp, among other spots, without acquiring any momentum whatsoever. (Representing all of those locales: Beowulf Boritt's wonder of a set, a revolving multilevel labyrinth of rooms, staircases, and curtains that seems to stretch to the sky.)
The second act, meanwhile, is devoted to Hart and Kaufman's first comedy together, Once in a Lifetime. The duo write and rewrite, and rewrite some more, as the show lumbers through rocky stints in Atlantic City, Brighton Beach, and Philadelphia on its way to Broadway. There are no backstage antics, and precious few glimpses at the gleeful Lifetime; there are, unfortunately, plenty of scenes with two writers poring over their scripts, pacing at the back of the auditorium, or holding supposedly intense conversations with minor characters. A scene between Hart and Kaufman's wife, Beatrice, adds nothing—except another sequence for the divine Andrea Martin. (Martin, fresh off her Tony-winning acrobatic turn in Pippin, works hard here, doing triple duty as Mrs. Kaufman, brassy agent Frieda Fishbein, and Moss' oddball theater-loving spinster Aunt Kate.)
And speaking of those few snippets of Lifetime—the question inevitably emerges: Why not mount a revival of that? Or another Hart and Kaufman gem, the Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can't Take It With You? It's impossible to watch this valentine to the coauthor of those iconic comedies (and director of hits like My Fair Lady and Camelot) without yearning to see more. Act One, both the book and the play, only takes us from his impoverished childhood to Lifetime's 1930 debut.
As we watch Hart and Kaufman worry and squabble and wrestle with their play-in-progress, the irony is inescapable: How can Act One—a show that spends so much time dissecting and trying to perfect another show—be so unaware of its own imperfections? As a producer (Bob Stillman) astutely remarks of Lifetime, ''It's a tiring play for the audience to sit through.'' Indeed. B–(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)