Act One, the 1959 memoir by Moss Hart about his life growing up and into the theater, is a classic. But at the meet-and-greet this week in LCT's large rehearsal room, before the first official day of rehearsal for James Lapine's adaptation, the mood was not one of only reverence towards a great figure in American theatrical history. There was also, befitting a man who gave us so many unforgettable comedies and dramas, much wry humor and down-to-earth affection.
Andre Bishop, LCT's producing artistic director, welcomed the artists as well as the in-house staff. "This project has been many years in the making," he said. "For me, reading this book when I was young was really the reason I went into the theater." Bishop saluted Lapine for his dedication to the production, adding that they have been acquainted since the early days, more than 30 years ago, of off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, where Bishop became artistic director and Lapine worked on such excellent evenings asMarch of the Falsettos and Sunday in the Park with George.
Bishop introduced Hart's son, Christopher, who said, "The great thing about [Act One] for me personally is that I can hear my father's voice in it. I can hear what he sounded like around the house. He took people in his life and made them into wonderful characters."
Hart read a letter, dated March 20, 1953, that his father had written from Palm Springs, California, to the Random House publisher Bennett Cerf. It was a playful exercise about "the proper method of bringing up children." The fictional development theorist in question was a middle-European medical man whose approach, highly effective, involved physical punishment and so was known as The Clobber Method.
Hart's sister, Catherine Hart - a medical woman: M.D. - expressed gratitude that Act One was headed for the stage. "Dad's story continues to resonate," she said. She spoke of his humanity, especially one Thanksgiving when she and her brother were young and the family spent it at their house on the Jersey Shore. Their mother, actress and philanthropist Kitty Carlisle Hart, decided to make the turkey herself. But when she realized hours after starting that she had forgotten to turn on the oven she sat on the kitchen floor sobbing. Her husband consoled her, before whisking the family off to Howard Johnson's for dinner. A few years later, according to Dr. Hart, her mother enhanced her reputation for food-related incompetence by announcing to the cook that she was going to the store to buy canned tuna fish. "She came back with cat food."
Anne Kaufman Schneider, daughter of Moss Hart's frequent collaborator, George S. Kaufman, said that Lapine's adaptation "captures totally what Moss was like and what my father was like. It helps keep them alive." Her father, she said, was "rather odd" and "sort of a tyrant." He was also, I and others in the room undoubtedly thought, a theatrical genius.
Lapine concluded the meet-and-greet by saying he hoped the production could continue Moss Hart's legacy. "I can't hope to match him but I can hope that we convey his spirit."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com