Moss Hart's Act One was published more than 50 years ago, but for his son, Christopher Hart, the new stage adaptation is not a belated dusting-off of material from long ago. As a producer and director, Chris Hart has had a steady relationship with his father's autobiography. "I always read something from Act One to the actors, whenever I am directing any of his plays," he told me the other day. "It helps them hear his voice before we get started, because the book captures the way he really sounded in life. And it gives the actors a sense of his affection for them - my father was a secret wannabe actor his whole life."
As proof, Chris Hart mentions that, during World War II, his father toured the South Pacific, entertaining the troops in a production of his and George S. Kaufman's play, The Man Who Came To Dinner. "My father played the lead role, Sheridan Whiteside, for six or eight months. He also did Winged Victory, a play and, later, a film, which raised more than a million dollars for the Army Air Corps."
Moss Hart's wartime experiences are not included in his autobiography, asAct One ends in 1930 with the success of his and Kaufman's play, Once in a Lifetime. Was there any thought of a second autobiography - an Act Two? "As I learned when I went through my family's letters not long ago," Chris Hart says, "it was clear to my parents" - his mother was the singer, actress, and arts philanthropist Kitty Carlisle Hart - "that the interesting part for my father was the getting there. A sequel would have been merely saying, "And then I wrote this play," or "And then I won this award." All that just isn't as stirring as the struggle to make it in the first place."
That struggle is rendered in such a polished and elegant style that I wondered how a man who didn't finish the eighth grade had learned how to write such vivid, vigorous prose. "For one thing," Chris Hart explained, "my father was an incredibly avid reader - books and newspapers were his high school and college. For another, he had a grandfather who loved Dickens. One of his parlor tricks was to read Dickens aloud for Sunday-afternoon tea. My father read and memorized huge swaths of Dickens."
Chris Hart said that, early in the process of turning Act One into the new stage adaptation, he and James Lapine, the production's writer and director, discussed whether it should be 8 or 10 hours long - like the Royal Shakespeare Company's beloved version of the Victorian novelist's Nicholas Nickleby. "In the end, however," Chris Hart said, "we realized that it was more than sufficient to evoke the book's spirit, rather than try to do every one of its wonderful stories."
That Lapine became involved with Act One evokes words of gratitude from Chris Hart. And not only owing to Lapine's professional skills. "In some ways," Hart said, "my father's relationship with Kaufman mimics Lapine's relationship with Stephen Sondheim. In both cases, my father and Lapine were both young men who began working with these great icons of the theater." (Students of Sondheim also know that his 1981 musical, Merrily We Roll Along, done with George Furth, was inspired by Kaufman and Hart's 1934 play of the same name.)
Before concluding my conversation with Chris Hart, I asked him what his mother might have thought of the new Act One. "She would be thrilled," he said. "She didn't see herself in the same league as my dad. What she called "my little career" was, she said, secondary to his. She did amazing things after he died. She was a formidable personality and talent. Both my parents were."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com