Point of view is half the job in creating a persuasive one-person show, and Frank Ferrante takes what has become a conventional tack in By George!, which he not only wrote but also stars in at American Stage. Ferrante introduces his subject, George S. Kaufman, at something of a turning point late in his career, two hours before the opening night of a little-remembered play, The Solid Gold Cadillac, and then flashes back over his decades as a celebrated playwright and wit.
However, point of view must flow from the inherent nature of the central character in a play or any other literary work, and that's a big reason why By George! came across as problematical in its premiere performance Friday night. Kaufman was a prickly, private sort of person, and it's hard to imagine him behaving as he does in Ferrante's play.
For example, while Kaufman had the outsized ego of any writer, the idea of him contriving to relate the events of his own life like a roll call of accolades, such as the Pulitzer Prize he won for Of Thee I Sing, and name dropping _ "I finished my latest piece for the New Yorker" _ and quoting lines from his own plays, stretches credulity and bogs down the play.
Ferrante has one thing down perfect in By George!, which he conceived as a vehicle for himself to follow up his portrayal of Groucho Marx in several shows, including An Evening with Groucho, seen last year at American Stage. Physically, he achieves an uncanny rendering of the playwright as a querulous fussbudget, constantly washing and wringing his hands, his brow perpetually furrowed.
By George!, directed by Amanda Rogers, also impresses from a technical standpoint, with sophisticated lighting and recorded voice-overs for some of the characters in Kaufman's world, such as Mary Astor, the Hollywood star with whom he had a scandalous affair, and his mentor, columnist Franklin Pierce Adams. Steven D. Lowe's set incorporates the Manhattan skyline, a row of theater seats and Kaufman's desk.
Kaufman was a hard-working writer who made a lot of money in the age before TV sitcoms, when Broadway was the center of commercial entertainment. Some of his plays are classics in a comic genre that now seems dated and talky, such as The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can't Take It With You. He was a regular at the Algonquin Round Table, that collection of theatrical and journalistic wags who ruled the pop culture roost in the 1920s and '30s.
But because Kaufman wasn't a performer or larger-than-life celebrity _ such as matinee idol John Barrymore or fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland, both subjects of successful recent solo shows _ it's difficult to fashion a scenario that animates him onstage. Ferrante tries to bring out his vulnerable side in plumbing the impact of the death at birth of a son, but it is confusing when he addresses much of the play to this unseen "John."
The first act of By George! runs just over an hour, but it seems longer in part because Ferrante expends so much energy introducing Kaufman's circle, from Alexander Woollcott to Dorothy Parker to Heywood Broun, once household names whose luster, he apparently believes, has faded to the point that each must be laboriously summarized in mini-sketches.
It's no surprise Ferrante's script needs work, since it is new. As Kaufman's longtime collaborator, Moss Hart, said: "Plays are not written. They are rewritten."
But the real question is if By George! can ever be rewritten into a fully realized work, and that is far from a sure thing, given some of the problems in Kaufman as a subject. Even the title _ with its celebratory exclamation point _ seems off kilter in a study of such a caustic man.