Morning Call review October 16, 2017

Crowded Kitchen's 'Act One' is a fun and serious look at life of playwright Moss Hart

Dave Howell
Special to The Morning Call

“Act One,” based on the autobiography of playwright Moss Hart, could have been just another stiff and overly celebratory historical drama.

But this play, which premiered on Broadway in 2014, is a classic rags to riches saga and a backstage look at the theater. These are familiar themes, but in this case they are based on a true story with a healthy dose of humor and just the right amount of sentimentality.

Crowded Kitchen Players is presenting the show at the Ice House in Bethlehem. A large screen at the back of the stage shows historical photographs that relate to the live action.

In two acts and 59 scenes, with actors playing multiple roles, the two hour and 20 minutes of “Act One” cover Hart’s life from his introduction to the theater to the opening of “Once in a Lifetime,” the first of eight plays he co-wrote with George S. Kaufman. Brian Wendt narrates as the older Hart, who walks on periodically to take a wry look at his past.

Moss (Ryan MacNamara) would seem to have little chance at stardom, growing up in poverty with his hard working father (Wendt), long suffering mother (Judy Evans) and brother Bernie (Ethan Silver).

But he is encouraged by his Aunt Kate (Trish Cipoletti), who refuses to admit her own reduced circumstances. His boundless ambition and a lucky connection get him a job as an office boy to low-rent producer Augustus Pitou. His first play, “The Beloved Bandit,” is a flop. A snippet of it is hilariously recreated.

Hart works his way up to a collaboration with George S. Kaufman (David “Oz” Oswald). Overwhelmed at first by the imperious humorist, Hart becomes closer to him as they try to work out the problems of the play as it nears its Broadway opening. Bits of “Once in a Lifetime” are enacted as the team painstakingly determine why the later acts fail with audiences.

MacNamara is perfect as the optimistic, energetic young Hart, filled with wonder at his success. Cipoletti is engaging as the self-deluded Aunt Kate, and Oswald expertly moves from haughtiness to a more human side. All 13 cast members except MacNamara have multiple roles, and none show any weak spots.

On opening night, the 14th actor Bruce Brown was hospitalized and all his parts were taken by Tom Harrison, except a few offstage voices done by director Ara Barlieb. Brown hopes to return this week. Harrison filled in amazingly well.

The 1959 book “Act One” was very popular and very romanticized. Hart suffered from long periods of depression and, as a posthumously published diary showed, he respected very few show business friends and acquaintances.

But the upbeat version is what you want to see, especially in this fun and quickly moving bio-play.

“Act One,” 8 p.m. Oct. 20 and 21, 2 p.m. Oct 22, Ice House on Sand Island, Bethlehem. Tickets: $18; $14, seniors; $10, students. 610-395-7176,

Dave Howell is a freelance writer.