At this week's platform event, held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont, LCT dramaturg Anne Cattaneo got right to the point. She led off her interviews with Act One main players Tony Shalhoub, Santino Fontana, and Andrea Martin by asking if they had known the Moss Hart book before signing on to the play adaptation.
"There's a book?" answered Shalhoub, a quick-witted response that served to warm up the filled-to-capacity audience. He dropped the deadpan, adding "This was a book that was a favorite of my mother's. It was always around the house." Fontana replied that he read the volume in college - it was part of the reading list for his very first class in the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater's BFA actor-training program. Martin said she grew to love the book because Nathan Lane knew it intimately. "He's my muse," she said.
All three actors said it was rigorous to go through Act One's rehearsal process, because James Lapine, the production's writer as well as its director, made constant improvements. "I had done three workshops of this piece...and it changed considerably," Shalhoub said. "It was hard to let some of those things go." Martin put in: "Actors hate to give up anything." All three performers, however, said they trusted Lapine to make changes to serve the story.
Audience members at the platform event were especially keen to know how the performers deal with Beowulf Boritt's ever-spinning, complex, beautifully detailed set, with its many nooks and crannies and staircases. Referring to some of his backstage colleagues, Fontana said: "They put a pedometer on me one night. I run a mile and a half in the show." Shalhoub explained that even though the performers were told about the set before it was finished, "we still had no idea how fast that thing was gonna go." He and Martin expressed slight amazement that the set has only had one or two in-performance glitches, and that both of these were quickly remedied.
Amazement was expressed by the audience that the actors could undergo the play's workout eight shows a week. Referring to her big moment on Broadway last season, in Pippin, for which she won a Tony, Martin downplayed the current hardship: "I've been on a trapeze for a year."
An audience member asked how Martin and Shalhoub, who each play three roles, keep their characters different. "The wardrobe and wigs are really important to me [for that]," Martin answered. Shalhoub echoed the sentiment: "In a way, the clothes wear you." The performers talked briefly about the extensive research they did on their real-life characters. Fontana said he wasn't bothered by the fact that there's no video of Hart before age 50 - in other words, nothing in live-motion to help Fontana, who plays Moss as a young man, nail down the exact physical mannerisms. Fontana said he wasn't going for a strict impersonation anyway. "My job," he explained, "is to do how he remembered his youth." Fontana's statement should be emailed to all those who are bothered by the alleged factual errors in Hart's Act One. Like all memoirists, Hart was offering his own remembered version - no more, no less.
In response to one of the audience questions about similarities between Monk, the character Shalhoub played for years on the hit TV show of the same name, and George S. Kaufman, who he portrays in Act One, the actor called it "an odd coincidence" that both have OCD mannerisms. Otherwise, Shalhoub said he didn't see them as very similar.
The platform event concluded with an audience member asking which Act One characters are the actors' favorite. "Each one is crazily challenging," Martin replied. And a good thing, she added: their complexity helps make "the 17 hours we're onstage go by really fast."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com