The 2014 Tony winner for Best Scenic Design Of A Play, Beowulf Boritt spins the audience through multiple locations in Act One, written and directed by James Lapine, and based on the autobiography of playwright Moss Hart. The play moves through the early years of Hart’s career, from his childhood home in a tenement to the grandeur of a townhouse owned by his writing partner George S. Kaufman. Produced by Lincoln Center Theater, Act One will be filmed on June 14 & 15 for the Live From Lincoln Center series on PBS.
The three-story set on a giant turntable fills the stage at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. “It was hard but a lot of fun,” says Boritt. “James Lapine warned me it would be challenging, with a first script that read like a movie— how do you tackle that in a theatrical way? He hired me 18 months out so we had a lot of time to work on it.”
The first scenic idea was an empty backstage with props lying around, a concept Boritt admits was “not terribly unique...then the night before our meeting, I had a Eureka moment.” The designer envisioned a multi-layer, rotating, three-story set: “Stacking space on stage is something I always find interesting,” he explains. “The Beaumont is big, and as big as the set is, many of the scenes are small with two or three people, and we wanted intimate spaces for these scenes.”
To deal with this contradiction, Boritt’s goal was to “fill the space yet force the action downstage. I reordered the spaces many times, so that the moves are mostly small. It was great to have James writing and directing— a real collaboration as the show changed even through previews, with new scenes, new sets, two sets for the hotel lobby scene until the last week when we finally settled on one of them. I had to orchestrate the movement of the set to fit the movement of the script.”
Boritt counts about 35 locations, or 35 different spaces, on the set, with the tenement taking up a large portion of the ground level, an upstairs apartment, and a roof not used too much. To keep track, he created a huge document for tracking the locations: “The set keeps moving, with the props crew running around backstage to redress each set as needed. Ken Billington even snuck some light in backstage so they could see what they were doing."
The play is roughly set it to 1927, but as Boritt explains, “It starts a bit before that, then you see Moss Hart in the 50s looking back on his life. The bulk of the play takes place before Act One opens, and there is a huge jump and lifestyle change when he makes it, from the tenements, how grim his life was as a kid and how glamorous it was once he started working with George S. Kaufman, whose house is a magical theatrical kingdom, a little over the top, somewhat Federal with a mansard roof…many styles pushed together as in many New York houses.”
Boritt’s color palette changes, from black and white and gritty in the tenement to bright, airy colors for the house. “The upstairs more George, downstairs more George’s wife,” notes Boritt, who conducted a big search for just the right colors, the right desk and accessories. “In the book Moss Hart describes his grim childhood in poverty with vivid contrast to the posh life he first encounters at Kaufman's house,” Boritt explains. “I really wanted to pop that in the design, and chose to literally make the difference black and white. The tenement is actually a dark wood, but so covered with soot and grime as to be almost black. New York is sooty even today, but I can only imagine how dirty 1920s New York, heated mostly by coal, must have been. All the furniture in the tenement is similarly muddy greys and browns and blacks. In contrast Kauffman's house is glossy white, and his office is crisp shiny warm wood tones, and the house has big lush flower arrangements to pop the color and light of his world.”