Bay City Players is ringing in the new year with a peek inside the theatrical world as presented within the innovative looking glass of Act One – a relatively new production that premiered on Broadway in April, 2014, and is based upon the autobiography of the legendary Moss Hart. Apart from winning a Pulitzer Prize for writing the play You Can’t Take it With You, Hart co-wrote numerous hit comedies for Broadway and is best known for the Tony Award he won for directing the musical My Fair Lady.
Narrated by the ‘older’ Moss Hart Act One follows Hart’s life from growing up poor in the Bronx to becoming famous and successful as a Broadway writer & director, covering territory ranging from his first meeting and collaboration with George S. Kaufman and leading up through the production of the eminently successful Hart-Kaufman play, Once in a Lifetime in 1930.
While people well-versed in theatre will recognize the names of Hart & Kaufman, director Michael Wisniewski is hopeful that general audiences unfamiliar with this groundbreaking duo will be drawn by the ‘rags to riches’ narrative of the play. “Hart grew up in the Bronx with poor immigrant parents who took in borders to make ends meet,” he reflects. “His father rolled cigars for Cubans and initially Moss Hart became an office boy and built his career up until it was suggested he collaborate with George Kaufman. While his first show didn’t do much, after years of working as a director with amateur theatre groups and serving as an entertainment director at summer resorts, he finally collaborated with Kaufman in 1980 on the play Once in a Lifetime, which is the production that catapulted him to fame. Act One covers this early part of his career, but the pair also wrote The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Hart’s biggest hit was with his direction of My Fair Lady, for which he won Tony Awards for Best Musical & Best Director. He was also married to actress Kitty Carlisle.”
But for Wisniewski, the biggest appeal to Act One is the way playwright James Lapine wrote the script. “Act One contains 51 speaking parts in a show with 20 female characters and 31 male characters and a cast of only 18 actors, so there is a lot of tripling-up for the actors to navigate,” explains Michael. “The audience gets to see each of these actors transform themselves into different characters, and many of the characters are from different cultural descendants. Apart from the ability of the actors, we are distinguishing the various characters minimalistically with a series of levels and set pieces that come on and off the stage, along with very slight changes in costume to let the audience know they are watching a different character.”
Michael adds that in breaking down the script, what he finds that makes it thematically appealing and equally challenging is the reality of the journey that Moss Hart actually takes. “There are so many different scenes in the show and locations that bounce back and forth between one another, from the tenement building that Hart lived in to the Kaufman residence to a couple producers’ offices; and the most interesting thing in breaking it down is not to have much lag time between setting up one scene and going into another,” he notes. “It’s very cleverly written and a strong mixture of both comedy and drama.”
Apart from the transitioning logistics between scene-to-scene, Wisniewski cites timing as the most critical challenge involved with the production. “Apart from the different locations & characters, some of the scenes are maybe a half page long and so short because the play is meant to clip along at a quick pace. The original set on Broadway consisted of a big turntable that moved and rotated, which was really cool; but the same thing can be done with staging different levels and having a really good stage crew that can move things along.”
“There is a lot of narration involved as well while the scenes are being changed, so the narrator walks the audience through the whole show. It’s a very challenging play logistically, but is very rich with material,” he continues. “In one scene Moss & Kaufman are writing together and working on a script when all of a sudden that script comes to life and the actors come to life and actually perform the scene, so there is a lot of creativity and invention woven throughout the production.”
“Act One will appeal to anybody making that first move through the door of opportunity onto the stage of success,” concludes Michael, “and it’s a very funny, touching, and beautiful look at an immigrant family and the American Dream.”
Bay City Players production of ACT ONE will run from January 27-20 and February 3-5 at Bay City Players Theatre, 1214 Columbus, Bay City. Admission is $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, and $10 for students and tickets can be purchased by phoning 989.893.5555 or visiting baycityplayers.com