Last week, I lamented the problems inherent in backstage-blogging about Act One, which is, in book form, the ultimate backstage blog. Watching the first preview, I was again struck by this state of affairs. Further, owing to Moss Hart's acute observations about the construction of a play, I noticed with wonder that Act One may be the only theatrical production I've ever seen that contains its own first-rate auto-critique. (Those of Brecht and Ionesco and Pirandello are too self-conscious to be very persuasive.)
In one crucial respect, however, Act One the book is unequal to the task of reviewing the LCT production: technology. Hart knew the tricks of lighting designers but not those of visualization-software engineers. He was acquainted with the habits of scenic artists but not those of computer-controlled-turntable operators. And I doubt that even the most elaborate of his play's productions were awash in what Paul Smithyman, LCT's associate production manager, calls "a tsunami of props."
Smithyman made the remark to me at the post-preview dinner. It was held, as usual, at PJ Clarke's, across the street from Lincoln Center. After their stair-climbing workout all night on Beowulf Boritt's spectacular multi-level set, it would have been cruel to have required the actors to shed costumes and makeup and amble more than a few steps to satisfy the inevitable post-show hunger.
And, believe me, the workout this show requires was very much on the actors' minds as they grabbed a drink before tucking in to the buffet of salmon and pasta and creamed spinach. Mimi Lieber, who plays Lillie Hart, demonstrated for me the proper way to step on the set's fast-moving turntable. "You have to go WITH the direction of it," she said, adding, "If you go against it you may be in for a big surprise."
Chuck Cooper, who plays Charles Gilpin and Max Siegel, spoke of the turntable's whirligig speed. "You're not always aware of it during tech, which is a lot of stopping and starting. But tonight, in performance, the thing just flew."
Lieber and Cooper both remarked at how awe-struck they were when, at the end of the production, they had a quiet moment to take in the scope of the set from well-illuminated vantage points. "During the show," Lieber said, "you're running about in the dark, just trying to get from one part of a big set to another. Before the curtain call, we had a moment to savor what we'd been working on all night. That was something."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com