In his memoir Act One, Moss Hart speaks of the meager audiences who showed up after the opening night, in Rochester, of his early play The Beloved Bandit: "There is something infinitely sad about a theater with an audience of perhaps twenty or thirty disconsolate people scattered through its seats, and there is a touch of sepulchral about actors booming out their lines into the vast reaches of an almost empty auditorium."
The audience who showed up one evening this week at Barnes and Noble, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, could not have been more dissimilar from those that Hart lamented. So packed-in were the patrons that some of them were hanging over the book shelves to catch a glimpse of the four men who had gathered to discuss the re-edition, by St. Martin's Griffin, of Hart's classic volume. Writer Tom Santopietro moderated a program that featured Christopher Hart, Moss Hart's son and the author of the foreword to the new edition; Santino Fontana, who plays the young-adult Moss Hart in LCT's Act One; and Tony Shalhoub, who plays an older Hart as well as Hart's collaborator, George S. Kaufman. The men performed readings from Act One, the book, and answered questions from Santopietro and the audience.
Chris Hart, who acknowledged his sister, Dr. Cathy Hart, in the house, was asked whether his father's flop, The Beloved Bandit, was ever mentioned in the family's home. (At the bookstore, he read a section of Act One about that play's reception.) "No," he said, adding "The only time I heard a line from the play" was during one of the workshops for the stage adaptation. "The play was quite as deadly as [my father] made it sound."
Fontana read from the memoir's section detailing one of Moss Hart's childhood Christmases in the Bronx. The poverty is heartbreaking and can't help but conjure Dickens. Fontana was asked about how he looks at the deprivation as he creates his character in the stage version. "It says a lot about [Moss Hart's] character" that "he wanted to help his family so much."
Shalhoub, who read from the section describing Hart's initial meeting with Kaufman, shared an anecdote about the reputation of the adult Hart, after his successes had swelled his bank account, for free-spending. There is a remark, Shalhoub said, usually attributed to Kaufman, and uttered after Kaufman had seen what Hart had done in the lavish design of one of his country properties. Kaufman looked the place over and quipped, "This is what God would have done if he'd had the money."
Before the formal part of the bookstore event concluded, so that Moss Hart's children could autograph copies of the re-edition, Chris Hart was asked if his father thought of himself primarily as a writer or a director or both. (Moss Hart directed the Broadway productions of My Fair Lady and Camelot.) "He was definitely first and foremost a writer," he replied. "He directed with friends who knew he would help them as a writer."
I will follow up on that topic when I interview Chris Hart for my next blog entry.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com