How do you make it big in New York when you’re starting from zero? Moss Hart’s 1959 autobiography, Act One, shows one path, a steep climb from poverty in the Bronx to his first Broadway opening in just a few exhilarating years. With specificity and purpose, director James Lapine has adapted the late playwright’s memoir into a surprisingly moving drama; he shows us how, for Hart (played primarily by the magnetic Santino Fontana), success comes through a crucible of self-discovery and sometimes with a loss of innocence.
A superb duo at this production’s big heart ignite the striver’s tale. Fontana lets us feel the wonder and terror of a young man who suddenly sees Manhattan’s glories opening up to him. Tony Shalhoub, as Hart’s older self and as Hart’s writing partner, George S. Kaufman, transforms a seasoned writer’s comic eccentricities into tender vulnerabilities.
For those of us who work in the theater, there’s a special pleasure to a tale centered around making a show (Once in a Lifetime) work at all costs while navigating a minefield of collaborations. Ironically (for a drama hinging on how to fix a third act), the adaptation’s late sections slow and repeat a bit, and it’s a pity Hart’s authorial voice doesn’t come through more distinctively from the original book. But, as Moss learns, making theater is all about coping with imperfections — and Act One is an inspiring chronicle of determination.