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I'm Lost on the Set, and It's Good for the Show

Date: Apr 21, 2014

Inside Beowulf Boritt's design for Broadway's Act One


People have actually gotten lost on the set of Act One.

Now on Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont, the show adapts Moss Hart's landmark memoir about his childhood in the Bronx, his early love of theatre, and his first collaboration with George S. Kaufman, which launched the playwriting partnership behind You Can't Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner.

That's a sprawling story, and playwright-director James Lapine tells it on a massive scale. His play covers dozens of years and features over 30 characters, including Hart himself at three different ages.

And the set, designed by Beowulf Boritt, reflects the scope of the script. Built on the Beaumont's 60-foot turntable---one of the biggest in New York---it's a three-story colossus that's essentially divided into six wedges, each with its own set of playing spaces and rooms. Throughout the show, as the story changes locations and time periods, the turntable revolves among the wedges, swiftly transitioning us from one area to the next.

That gives literal propulsion to the plot. For instance, when twentysomething Moss walks from his tenement apartment to a Broadway theatre, we might see the actor Santino Fontana stroll across several wedges while the set turns. By the time he exits into the Broadway section of the structure, the tenement section has receded into the darkness.

As smooth as they look from the house, however, these transitions require an enormous amount of coordination, and it took the performers and crew quite a while to get their bearings. "It's incredibly confusing when you get inside because it's so big and moves so smoothly," Boritt says. "You can be in the middle of the thing and be spinning and not really be aware of it, because you're surrounded by the set on all sides. In the first couple of weeks, continually, people would walk off thinking they were stage right and actually they were stage left. We ended up hanging colored lights---green on the stage left wing and red on the stage right wing---so that people have something to orient themselves with."

But for Boritt, a less ambitious design would shortchange both the story and the production. "We did talk about, 'What if we do it with two tables and ten chairs?'" he says. "And we did do workshops of it that way. But we felt like the Beaumont is such a grand theatre, you can't strip the show down that much and still have it fill the space."

Plus, the bustle of New York is part of the plot, and that's another reason the set includes so much. "The structure of it is very consciously trying to mirror the chaos of New York and frankly, the chaos of a life in the theatre," Boritt says. That's why, when the turntable is revolving, we might glimpse a random citizen hustling down the street, or why a party at Kaufman's house has so much depth that we see revelers far in the distance. They remind us that Moss Hart's adventure---just like anyone's in New York---is swept along by the current of the city.

Of course, Act One is as much the story of one man's adventure as it is an epic tale of New York. To that end, the small details of Boritt's design remind us we're somewhere specific, somewhere tangible where a person can actually exist.

So while he spent weeks working out the timing of each turntable transition, Boritt also spent hours painting a backdrop for the scene where Hart's first play gets a disastrous production. The play's a hokey western, and to underline how terrible it is, it sports a tacky replica of an old-time saloon. (If you look closely, you can see that the painter ran out of room when he was trying to squeeze the word "saloon" onto the door.)

"I probably redesigned that drop more times than anything in the show," Boritt says. "James kept saying, 'It has to be uglier! It has to be uglier!' I kept doing these things I thought were ugly, and he'd say, 'Well… that's kind of tasteful.'"

To keep things intimate, Boritt has also limited the size of each playing area. The tenement house is only 15 feet wide and even Kaufman's glitzy apartment isn't much bigger.
"It hopefully brings it down to a very human, workable scale," Boritt says. "It hopefully makes the actors and the story the prominent thing."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

Photos by Joan Marcus