Twelve public high schools sent students to this week's lively Wednesday matinee of Act One. Seven of the schools are located in Manhattan; one of them, in fact, the High School for Law, Advocacy & Community Justice, is across the street from Lincoln Center. Leave it to a student from a school in another borough, however, from the Marble Hill School for International Studies, in the Bronx, to pose the zingiest question after the matinee, when the cast gathered on the Vivian Beaumont stage to interact with the students.
"Most of us are from the Bronx," said the student-in-question, a young woman who was clearly enjoying her moment in the spotlight. "What is the message he is trying to spread?" The "he" was the young-man version of Moss Hart, the central character in Act One. He is striving desperately to escape his family's poverty, rooted in the Bronx, for the riches of Manhattan, which, true to the Rodgers and (Lorenz) Hart spirit of the era, beckons as the isle of opportunity.
Santino Fontana, who portrays the young Moss Hart, fielded the student's question, and addressed the sense of mock slight of the Bronx. "It's nothing to do with the location," Fontana said, "and everything to do" with Hart's aspirations. For him, Fontana went on, getting out of the Bronx means "getting a life for himself." Not to mention an easier time for his father, mother, and brother.
LCT's Open Stages Education Program, which prepares the students for their Beaumont performance with three teaching sessions, serves students from all five NYC boroughs. I was especially interested in the Brooklyn contingent: that borough's Grady High School was present. In Hart's memoir, upon which James Lapine's adaptation is based, the family is, in fact, transplanted at story's end to Manhattan from Brooklyn, not the Bronx. What's more, the play chides the Coney Island borough here and there. For example, when Kaufman and Hart's Once in a Lifetime is reviewed during its Brighton Beach tryout, and a local reviewer knocks it, Hart's mother, Lillie, responds, "If they were real critics they wouldn't be in Brooklyn." That line got a big student laugh.
I should mention that most of the students' questions at the matinee had nothing to do with New York City geography. There were questions about how the actors, most of whom play multiple roles, differentiate their characters; how Lillie feels about living in a male-dominated world; and, inevitably, how Tony Shalhoub compares the mannerisms of George S. Kaufman, one of his assignments, with those of Monk, whom Shalhoub played memorably on TV.
Almost as inevitably, students were interested in Matthew Schechter, the young adolescent who plays the boyhood iteration of Hart as well as his younger brother, Bernie. Teenagers at LCT matinees usually want to know how a child actor got his plum professional job. This week, they asked about how Schechter balances work and studies. "I go to a regular public school," Schechter replied. "And he's doing very well there," added Mimi Lieber, who plays Schechter's mother onstage but whose pride was so evident you'd think she was also his mother off-. Schechter said that going to school while doing eight shows a week is hard work "but it's worth it."
A fitting lesson for an audience at a student matinee.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com