EYE ON THEATRE: Classics, New and Old By JOHN SIMON

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“Act One” is one of the most popular books about theater ever written. It is the autobiography of the early years of the playwright / director Moss Hart (1904-1961), a chronicle of his early life from poverty-stricken Bronx boyhood in a family of immigrant British Jews, to his rise—through passion for theater, extraordinary persistence and resilience—to co-authorship with George S. Kaufman of the Broadway hit “Once in a Lifetime,” the beginning of a blazing career cut short only by Hart’s premature death.

SIMON-050114-ACT ONE-Matthew Schechter as Bernie Hart, Mimi Lieber as Lillie Hart & Santino Fontana as Moss Hart in Act One

Matthew Schechter as Bernie Hart, Mimi Lieber as Lillie Hart, and Santino Fontana as Moss Hart in “Act One”.

The autobiography and its new theatrical adaptation are, as their title has it, the account of a first act (up to 1930) that was to lead to a successful second act culminating in “You Can’t Take it With You” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” giving the lie to Scott Fitzgerald’s famous assertion that there is no second act in American lives. Hart’s was a dazzling one, even if he did not record it as “Act Two.”

I must start the review of this show with tribute to the wonderful set by Beowulf Boritt, a designer whose career I predicted from his early, inexpensive set designs for modest shows. Here he has gloriously fulfilled himself. Lincoln Center Theater’s vast Vivian Beaumont stage has been filled with a towering construction that revolves to reveal the story’s numerous locations. It is a complex, many-sided tower of diverse levels, platforms, staircases, nooks and crannies, featuring withal a certain transparence allowing us to see bits of the past and future in the multifariousness of theater and life. Assisted by Ken Billington’s lighting and an expert cast of 22, as well as music by Louis Rosen, the set treats us to worlds within worlds with a realism that somehow verges on a sometimes homey, sometimes hectic lyricism.

SIMON-050114-ACT ONE-Andrea Martin as Aunt Kate & Matthew Schechter as Moss Hart in Act One

Andrea Martin as Aunt Kate and Matthew Schechter as Moss Hart in “Act One”.

James Lapine, who adapted the book and directed, has done bully work with both. And the way almost all actors take two, three, or even four parts as easily as slipping into different clothes, creates additional thrills. It is delightful to watch Moss Hart played in time-tripping ways by three excellent actors. The amazing Tony Shalhoub plays the mature writer Hart, charmingly narrating from the sidelines; the terrific Santino Fontana is the young Moss, carrying most of the action with easeful bravura; and Matthew Schecter, impeccable as the boy Mossy. But Shalhoub is equally winning as the bossy cockney father, Barnett, and, with an unruly hairdo and hilarious mannerisms, as eccentric George S. Kaufman.

No less impressive is Andrea Martin as Aunt Kate, who initiates Moss’s theatergoing and encourages him, thereby getting herself expelled from the household by the irascible Barnett. She also plays the helpful agent Frieda Fishbein, and the elegantly poised Beatrice Kaufman, her husband’s first critic, and a great support to Moss. Here too are all those fine actors playing such parts as the rival producers Jed and Sam Harris (Will LeBow and Bob Stillman), the black actor-director Charles Gilpin (Chuck Cooper), and those lowly office boys but future showbiz celebrities Dore Schary, Edward Chodorov and Irving Gordon (Will Brill, Bill Army, Steven Kaplan), and Mimi Lieber as Moss’s good, long-suffering mother. And so on and on.

SIMON-050114-ACT ONE-Santino Fontana as Moss Hart & Tony Shalhoub as George S. Kaufman in Act One[2]

Santino Fontana as Moss Hart and Tony Shalhoub as George S. Kaufman in “Act One”.

It is a colorful life of dizzying ups and downs, even more so during the long and frantic Kaufman & Hart collaboration on “Once in a Lifetime,” a genesis that often looked like a stillbirth. Effectively, we even get some excerpts of that comedy as play within a play. Also bit parts by flavorful marginal characters; by today’s 90-minute standards, this is a very long play, yet it goes by with the most gratifying smoothness.

As a further bonus, we are given one of Beatrice Kaufman’s grand parties, at which Moss gets to meet the celebrities he had only dreamed about. We get some fetching miniature sketches, but wasn’t Alexander Woolcott, here played as a lean man, really a chub? In some ways, the entire play is an extended, exhilarating party.

“Act One” images by and courtesy of Joan Marcus.

Venue: Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY 10023. Tickets: www.Tickets-Center.com or 1-888-856-7830.

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John Steinbeck’s novella “Of Mice and Men” (1937), which the author adapted for the stage in 1938, and which gave rise to a couple of movie adaptations, has made it even to high-school reading lists. It concerns Lennie and George, two itinerant farmhands going from ranch to ranch in those Depression times, hoping to amass enough money in wages to someday own their own ranch in California’s Salinas Valley.

SIMON-050114-OF MICE AND MEN-JAMES FRANCO AND CHRIS O'DOWD,jpg

James Franco as George and Chris O’Dowd as Lennie in “Of Mice and Men”.

An unusual couple: Lennie, the amiable but very stupid giant, with a passion for stroking soft, furry creatures, or silken skirts and hair, does not know his own strength and chokes the life out of his pets; and George, the smaller and smarter man, acting as his compassionate but often exasperated keeper. Way back there was an Aunt Clara, who entrusted Lennie to George’s care.

We see the men first around a campfire, with childlike Lennie having just smothered a mouse, and continually urging George to tell about a future farm where Lennie will be the keeper of rabbits. George has to drill him into keeping mum when they are questioned at the next ranch, Lennie’s misbehavior having chased them away from the previous one.

At that ranch they join a racy cross section of laborers, prominent among them old Candy, who lost a hand to a machine and owns a decrepit, stinky dog. There is also Curly, the boss’s permanently seething son, always spoiling for a fight, especially so now, what with a slatternly new wife of whom he is insanely jealous.

SIMON-050114-OF MICE AND MEN-CHRIS O'DOWD AND LEIGHTON MEESTER

Chris O’Dowd as Lennie and Leighton Meester as Curley’s wife in “Of Mice and Men”.

Steinbeck wrote with remarkable empathy for his various worker characters, including the crippled Negro, Crooks, in charge of the horses, and confined to separate quarters in the stable. Also for the pathetic sexpot wife, with ludicrous aspirations movie stardom. The oddball farmhands are well individualized and juicily real, especially poor Lennie.

He is played here by the Irish-born actor Chris O’Dowd, who does a fine, unsentimentalized job of the role, although I question the peculiar choreography he gives to the fingers of one hand. The harder part of George is likewise well served by James Franco, though he seems too good-looking for the part, much as he downplays that.

All others contribute characterfully, especially Jim Norton, who plays Candy, touchingly hanging on to his debilitated dog, and hopefully offering to add his meager savings to buying that dreamt-of, but never-to-be future ranch of George and Lennie’s. Alex Morf does a scary Curly, Ron Cephas Jones a compellingly passive-aggressive Crooks, with Jim Ortlieb, Jim Parrack, Joel Marsh Garland and James McMenamin pungent as the others.

SIMON-050114-OF MICE AND MEN-JAMES FRANCO AND JIM NORTON

James Franco as George and Jim Norton as Candy in “Of Mice and Men”.

Only Leighton Meester, as Curly’s unnamed wife, is not quite the intended tramp either in looks or demeanor. But she will do, under Anna D. Shapiro’s cogent direction. Todd Rosenthal’s sets are properly atmospheric, except for something curious about the sky, and Japhy Weideman’s lighting provides its evocative share.

It is a gripping story and welcome additional diversity to Broadway, whence it has been absent for 40 years. Yet it feels marvelously new even to those of us old enough to remember it well, proof of something essential, something classic.

“Of Mice and Men” images by and courtesy of Richard Phibbs.

Venue: Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: www.Telecharge.com  or 1-212-239-6200 or 1-800-447-7400.

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John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. To learn more, visit the www.JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

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eHeziEYE ON THEATRE: Classics, New and Old By JOHN SIMON

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