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Son Paying Homage To Moss Hart

March 07, 1987|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

Is it to fill a gap in his relationship with the father he lost when he was 12 that Christopher Hart, now 39, is paying tribute by producing his father's plays--on stage and on television? Perhaps, but in Hart's view, it's also good business.

For this son of Moss Hart, the famous playwright, and of Kitty Carlisle, actress and television personality, growing up as the child of celebrity parents wasn't always smooth, but in the last nine years there has been a coming to terms.

He's at work on a television series based on Moss Hart's and George S. Kaufman's "You Can't Take It With You" (to air over NBC's owned stations next fall), and Sunday he opens "Light Up the Sky" at the Ahmanson Theatre (co-presented by Center Theatre Group-Ahmanson).

Written by Moss and produced by Christopher (born in 1948--the year the play opened on Broadway), "Sky" is a glittering comedy of manners about the whirlwind wackiness of Boston tryouts in the '40s, when Broadway was in its heyday.

Considering how Broadway's lights have dimmed and how radically the place is changing, isn't a comedy about Broadway's glamour, when Broadway no longer has much, a bit perverse?

"I saw a production in London about a year and a half ago, at the Old Vic," Hart, soft-spoken, explained in the small, windowless Music Center office where we met.

"The play a clef elements were totally lost on that English audience, as were a lot of the indigenous references to the (American) theater of the period. But the characters were so funny, the wit so sharp, that, despite the missing nuances, audiences were in the aisles. I thought, 'If audiences as removed as this can get it, I see no reason to worry that there is anything dated about the show.'

"These characters are larger than life. There is THE PRODUCER--in bold type--THE Leading Lady, THE Young Playwright, THE Older Playwright. It's the quintessential backstage story.

"Ellis (Rabb, the director) is heightening these personalities, stylizing them without making them campy. What he does best is get under the veneer. He finds layers under layers of characterization in my father's plays and those of George Kaufman.

"Ellis did 'You Can't Take It With You' on Broadway and before that rediscovered the play with the APA (1965/67). He brings out human characteristics which let (the play) go from a comedy of wit to a comedy of character."

The context of Hart's childhood was very much that of "Sky."

"My parents," he said, with just the faintest hesitation, "lived a very flamboyant life. In very high style. It was always a high-wire act. My father was continually living above his means.

"They made every effort to keep me out of the business and to tell me I was only seeing the glamorous tip of the iceberg. We lived in an enormous apartment on Park Avenue. I remember wonderful parties when I would be put to bed at a reasonable hour, then awakened, redressed and brought down, rubbing my eyes, to meet the people.

"I don't think I was too impressed. You want to see your parents as real people. Somebody said nobody's a hero at home. Sometimes I was kind of embarrassed by their celebrity. I remember going to the movies on a Saturday afternoon and begging them to stand in line with me and the rest of the kids instead of going to the front of the line, saying who they were and getting in quickly.

"But I also took the good stuff--like going to rehearsals with my father. I wasn't around for 'The Man Who Came to Dinner.' My era was 'My Fair Lady' and 'Camelot' (both of which Moss Hart directed), my father's book ("Act One") and my mother's beginning with the TV show ("To Tell the Truth").

"I was 6 or 7 when 'My Fair Lady' opened. I remember going on a Saturday afternoon, sitting and being thrilled."

Young Christopher, a Harvard graduate, was never seriously stricken with a desire to perform as much as to compose (he attended the New England Conservatory and the Berkeley School of Music) and to write. He spent a year at the Boston Record American, where he became the music critic, "only because somebody died, not because I had a passion for it."

"It was 1971," he said. "I was the house hippie. I ended up reviewing rock 'n' roll and doing a record column. I didn't get into the producing until recently. I led a sort of postgraduate life in Cambridge for far too long. I don't think I finished with puberty until I was about 30."

He acknowledged that he and his mother ("she worries a lot") had some "stormy" stretches during that extended puberty--stretches that have now segued into a welcome period of harmony. His only sister, he said, heeded their parents warnings and went into medicine--something Hart himself toyed with briefly during his salad days, "but it didn't stick."

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