Fifty-four years after its publication, Act One has once again seized the spotlight. Encomiums to its perfection light up the media landscape like paper lanterns in a "Streetcar" apartment. Frank Rich's long, absorbing essayin this week's New York magazine is but the most princely of the celebrations. He echoes his assertion on the back of the new paperback edition that Act One "is not only the best book ever written about the American theater, but one of the great American autobiographies, by turns gripping, hilarious, and searing."
So why is your Backstage Blogger in a funk? Why does he find himself prowling the hallways adjacent to the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where tech rehearsals for James Lapine's adaptation of Act One are going on, certain that he emanates the morosity of an Eeyore and the dusty trail of "Peanuts"'s Pigpen? No song of joy hummed by dressers backstage - one of them is prone to whistling "Let It Go": no comment - can ease the agony.
Why does the Blogger feel himself saddled with all the weight of the spectacularly lived-in set that now straddles the entire width of the Beaumont stage? Why, when he observes stage manager Rick Steiger manfully orchestrating the mammoth organizational effort required to get this production in shape for an audience, does he not feel an instinctive urge to hurl bravos at the feet of Steiger, director James Lapine, and all the technicians hulking down in the audience for long hours at their worktables?
Why? Moss Hart, that's why. Each time the Blogger rouses himself to comment on this activity, he unbolts the memoir Act One to any random page, and feels utterly defeated. Here, for example, is what I chanced upon while i-Chinging the text today. Hart is writing about the final rehearsals for his and George S. Kaufman's 1930 play, Once in a Lifetime. They are at the Apollo Theatre in Atlantic City, which was, strangely to us now but familiarly in those days, "the top tryout town of the Eastern Seaboard":
"It is almost impossible to convey to an outsider the atmosphere of a theatre during those endless hours of unrelieved tedium. The dismal waiting about, the awesome hopelessness of shouting at stagehands who can hear nothing and are obviously blind as well, the whispered but venomous arguments in the back of the theatre with the scenic artist, the lighting expert and the costume designer - all of this, strung out over a period of three days and nights, is my own private conception of what hell or eternal damnation must be like. There exists among the laity a mistaken idea that dress rehearsals are exciting and glamorous. It needs correction. They are pure hell!"
There, in a single paragraph, Hart arrives at the ultimate description of what everyone in the Beaumont is going through this week: Tech Tedium. But the Blogger's own mild dolor does not stem from having read Hart's downbeat account, and having, momentarily, acquired his anomie. The Blogger knows that, in less than a week, Act One will have played its first preview, and, whatever the work still ahead, will have miraculously taken shape before an audience. A sense of accomplishment, however tentative, awaits.
No, the Backstage Blogger treads heavily these days because, each time he re-reads Act One, he realizes that Moss Hart himself is the ultimate Backstage Blogger. Hart's observations of what goes down before the curtain goes up are peerless. Perhaps it would be best, for the duration of the Beaumont run, to turn this column into a running reprint of Act One excerpts.
Then the Blogger remembers something he once read in a self-help book: "Compare and despair." Yes, to measure oneself against a person of supreme accomplishment can be an inspiration; also a recipe for discouragement. Better to remember what Hart wrote at the end of Act One and be grateful for the up-close vantage that the Blogger has been graciously afforded: "The performance backstage sometimes equals or betters the one which has just taken place in front of the footlights."
"Sometimes"? I would issue a rare amendment to Hart and say: frequently.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com