So much love and care and ambition have been poured into "Act One," playwright/director James Lapine's sprawling stage adaptation of playwright/director Moss Hart's celebrated 1959 memoir. But as the Lincoln Center Theater's in-house magazine reminds us, Hart himself wrote, "Playwrighting is not a gentle or sentimental profession, nor, may I add, is any part or portion of the theater."
Putting gentleness aside, one therefore must report that this play about the theater has a dazzling theatrical set but a dispiriting lack of drama. Autobiographical peaks and valleys that read with such charm and intensity in Hart's words are translated here into almost three hours of busy, flatline narrative.
This happens and then that happens. Young Hart (Matthew Schechter) gets inspired by his theater-loving but selfish aunt (Andrea Martin), then Hart's stern father (Tony Shalhoub) throws her out of the poor Bronx tenement where they take in boarders. Young-adult Hart (Santino Fontana) gets a producer interested in his first play, then it flops out of town. Battered but wiser Hart endures an agonizing apprenticeship with first-class director/eccentric George S. Kaufman (Shalhoub again, delicious), then their collaboration succeeds.
Hart's first act ends there, which means a legendary career that included co-authoring the Pulitzer-winning "You Can't Take it With You" and directing "My Fair Lady" is about to begin. This play, however, is over.
Lapine, whose own distinguished career includes collaborating with Stephen Sondheim on "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Into the Woods," seldom captures the urgency in the storytelling here. The big cast is adept but scattered, with most actors playing two and three finely-drawn but overly familiar types. Life brightens, however, whenever Martin buzzes through as the live-wire literary agent, Frieda Fishbein.
Fontana has a compelling earnest energy as Hart as the young artist. His budding relationship with the veteran Kaufman, which flourishes in the second act, is the most beguiling part of this problematic play obsessed with the fixing of a troubled play. Shaloub, a marvelous character actor, finds a way to find comedy in another seriously-disturbed man without mimicking the character he played on TV's "Monk." Both actors share narration as the young and the older, debonair Hart.
What will be remembered from this memory play, however, is Beowulf Boritt's splendid, cunning turntable set, which spins us around locations from Hart's hardscrabble roots to his high life like an enormous carousel. If only the story could spin like that.
WHAT "Act One"
WHERE Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center
INFO $77-$137; 212-239-6200, lct.org
BOTTOM LINE Ambitious theater story lacks theatricality.