Acclaimed playwright and director Moss Hart was a product of the Broadway of the 1920s when everything was changing. It was the Jazz Age and in pre-Great Depression New York City theaters were at their peak of popularity, drawing in some 20 million theater-goers a year.
Millionaires were getting in the act with financial backing, and writers and directors were emboldened to explore real issues, and integrate jazz music into their plots. Women’s roles began changing from innocent Cinderellas to cigarette-smoking, alcohol-drinking flappers. African-Americans were performing on stage for the first time, and Actors Equity was born.
It was an era of transformation and opportunity, and the ideal time for an impoverished Jewish boy with a talent for writing and a craving for success to grow up in New York City.
There was nothing easy about it, though, and the agony of disappointment, and thrill of eventual success in his early years are exposed in Hart’s gritty, yet sensitive autobiography “Act One,” published in 1959, just two years before his death.
It wasn’t until 2014, though, that James Lapine’s Tony-nominated stage adaptation premiered on Broadway. The Crowded Kitchen Players are staging their own noteworthy Lehigh Valley premiere of “Act One,” with performances through Oct. 22 in the Charles A. Brown Ice House, Bethlehem.
The play is not for the faint-hearted director, cast or crew. Producer-Director Ara Barlieb has done a remarkable job of overcoming the myriad of set, cast and costume challenges that call for 59 scene changes, 51 separate roles and a flurry of costume changes required because all the characters are played by only 14 actors. Well, actually 13, because on opening night, Oct. 13 (Friday the 13th), the performance seen for this review, one of the actors who was supposed to play four of the characters was hospitalized. As it’s said in the theater, the show must go on, and it did, very nicely.
Ryan MacNamara is marvelous as Moss in his teens and early adult years, when youthful wonder and optimism give way to anxiety and disappointment. MacNamara employs all the right gestures, facial expressions and vocal techniques needed to portray the complexity of his character.
Brian Wendt gives credibility to his portrayal of Hart as the adult and acclaimed playwright. Walking through the scenes as a spirit-like moderator of the milestones in Hart’s life, Wendt projects just the right air of detachment suitable to any depiction of the chronically-depressed Hart.
Mossy, who is Hart as a boy, and his brother Bernie Hart are played by Ethan Silver, a very spirited and personable young actor.
Trish Cipoletti gets lots of deserved laughter and applause for her one-liners as Hart’s feisty Aunt Kate, who inspired her young nephew’s interest in theater by taking him to Broadway matinees, and provided encouragement for him later in life. “Don’t give up your dreams for a dammed job,” she bellows. As Mrs. Harris the producer, Cipoletti’s comic timing scores another hit with her observation of Hart’s first play: “The Titanic had a longer run.”
The remaining cast list of 47 is full of the names of luminaries of the 1920s and early ‘30s who met Hart along the way or in some way influenced his career, names such as writer and critic Dorothy Parker, actor and humorist Robert Benchley, writer Edna Ferber, and commentator Alexander Wolcott.
Topping them all is George S. Kaufman (David Oswald), the great collaborator who worked with Hart in writing many of his hits, such as the Pulitzer-prize-winner “You Can’t Take It With You.”
Oswald is ideally cast as Kaufman, written in the script as a morose and intimidating personality who hates any expressions of sentimentality. Oswald not only captures those moods, but also exposes nuances of a more multi-dimensional character.
As in many CK Players’ productions, Barlieb designed the set for “Act One,” providing a very innovative solution to the multiple set change dilemma. Onto a large screen on the wall behind the set are projected period photos of New York, Philadelphia and Atlantic City as the action moves from location to location. Large captions on each photo identify the specific scene. That clever solution allows the actors to play on the same minimal set of risers of various heights throughout the play.
Notable among the sound effects, also by Barlieb, is the clicking of invisible typewriters.
“Act One” is an illuminating look into the struggles of one of Broadway’s finest playwrights, as well as a glimpse into the inner workings of Broadway theater during the Roaring 20s and beyond. The CK Players deserve credit for accepting the many challenges the script presents, and giving it a very enjoyable life once again on stage.
Tickets: The Charles A. Brown IceHouse box office, Sand Island, 56 River St., Bethlehem; ckplayers.com; 610-395-7176