Getting into the ‘Act’: Crowded Kitchen Players presents Lehigh Valley debut of drama about Moss Hart, legendary Bucks playwright
For director Ara Barlieb and the Crowded Kitchen Players (CK Players) theater company, “Act One” is a production that everyone wanted to be a part of.
“Like a lot of theater companies, we are drawn to plays about theater,” Barlieb says. “It’s really compelling to do a play about a play.”
Barlieb says that, to the best of his knowledge, “Act One” has never been performed outside of New York City.
The Lehigh Valley premiere of “Act One” will be presented by the CK Players at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 13 - 22, Charles A. Brown IceHouse, Sand Island, 56 River St., Bethlehem.
The play, based on “Act One: An Autobiography” by Moss Hart (1904 - 1961), follows the struggles and trials that Hart faced in his youth before becoming a highly-regarded playwright, stage director and screenwriter. The play includes scenes of Hart’s meeting and collaborating with George S. Kaufman and concludes with the production of the Hart-Kaufman play, “Once in a Lifetime” (1930).
During the next decade, Kaufman and Hart teamed on several successful plays, many of which became hit movies, including “You Can’t Take It with You” (1936), “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (1939) and ”George Washington Slept Here” (1940), the latter based on a Pennsylvania-German farmhouse Hart and his wife, Kitty Carlisle (1910 - 2007), actress and arts advocate, purchased and refurbished along Aquetong Road, Solebury Township, Bucks County, in the vicinity of New Hope.
Among the Broadway shows Hart directed was the musical, “My Fair Lady” (1956), with the show receiving a Tony as best musical and Hart receiving a Tony as best director, and “Camelot” (1960).
Hart wrote screenplays for the movies, “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), for which he received an Oscar nomination; “Hans Christian Andersen“ (1952), and the remake of “A Star Is Born” (1954).
“[‘Act One’] came from Hart’s autobiography, which is probably the best book about theater written in America. When we saw it [the play] a few years ago, we were immediately interested in it, and we got the rights to it so we’re good to go,” says Barlieb.
The play, “Act One,” written by James Lapine (Tony Awards, best book, musical: “Into the Woods,” 1988; “Falsettos,” 1992; “Passion,” 1994; Pulitzer Prize, drama, “Sunday in the Park With George,” 1985) premiered in 2014 on Broadway. A filmed version was televised in 2015 on PBS. Hart’s autobiography was adapted as a film in 1963.
The play features a sizeable cast of characters portrayed by the CK Players actors, who, as in the Broadway production, play multiple roles. Moss Hart is played by three different actors at various ages in his life.
The cast includes Ryan McNamara, Brian Wendt, David Oswald, Trish Cipoletti, Judy Evans, Ethan Silver, Max Wetherhold, Bruce Brown, Stephanie Steigerwalt, Carla Thew, Tom Harrison, Susan Burnette, Ryan Lichty and Alexandra Racines.
“It’s a circus, literally a three-ring circus. We’ve got people constantly changing costumes, moving from character to character. There are 14 people playing 51 roles. They barely have time to breathe. It really adds to the excitement of the piece, for the actors and the audience,” Barlieb says.
With the play spanning about half a century, mapping out different points in Hart’s life, staging and presenting such varied settings and time periods can become an arduous and expensive task. Luckily, the ingenuity and dedication of the CK Players has made this task gargantuan task manageable.
“That’s a big problem for covering a long period of time,” says Barlieb. “In New York, they built a rather expensive revolving stage, and obviously we can’t do that, so we have a lot of different platforms to work with. Actors are changing set pieces rapidly, and these stages are moving back and forth constantly.”
In some ways, “Act One” is a departure from the CK Players’ usual productions. In recent years, the company has focused on original works, a focus that they intend on maintaining in the future. This play is the exception primarily because of the themes of struggle and hope contained within the narrative.
“[Hart] had a lot of problems. His parents were constantly fighting. They never had enough money for the electricity bill or enough food, for that matter. He quit school early on to support his family,” Barlieb says.
“Despite all that, he was interested in theater and would write plays at night and got them in the hands of influential producers. It was a constant fight for him, but he never gave up on his dreams for a better tomorrow. That’s what this play is all about, being tireless and refusing to fail.
“If you have it within you to refuse to fail or give up or be pushed away by setbacks, then you can accomplish anything you work for.”
Barlieb also feels that the CK Players happen to be presenting “Act One” at a time when it needs to be seen and heard again, specifically referring to the struggles of immigrants in the United States.
“It’s so timely a piece regarding immigration. To some degree or another, we all came from somewhere else, America allows that, and it would be disastrous to bring that to a halt. This play shows what happens when a family comes over to build a dream here and the amazing things they can accomplish.”
At the end of the day, though, Barlieb hopes that “Act One” will leave each audience member with a broad smile on their face.
“We want people to be entertained, to engage people for a couple of hours, allowing them to leave when the play is done with smiles on their faces, laughing and enjoying what they have seen,” Barlieb says.
Tickets: The Charles A. Brown IceHouse box office, Sand Island, 56 River St., Bethlehem; ckplayers.com; 610-395-7176