Stepping into a theater, shuffling past other patrons and finally sitting your seat as the house lights dim is an experience full of anticipation. It's as if walking into another dimension, endless possibilities. However, when going to see a play written by an iconoclast like Woody Allen, you have some idea what you're getting into.
Play It Again, Sam is a seminal work of the well-respected writer's prolific career. "It's a link between the earlier, funnier work like Take the Money and Run and Bananas and his later relationship-oriented work like Annie Hall." says director Paul Guay. Not only does it marry eras of Woody Allen's career, but it also connects generations of cinema. Mounting a piece with such a history is a daunting task to say the least. On the other hand, the script is so naturally exceptional that it would be enjoyable to listen to a stuffy professor read it as a monotone lecture.
Recently divorced, our nerdy, nervous protagonist, Allan Felix, is brilliantly juxtaposed by the fantasy superego of his bold idol, Humphrey Bogart. In the opening moments, David Lengel as Allan delivers rapid-fire neurosis, pummeling the audience into submission with line after hysterical line of perfectly placed punches.
Just as the audience had adapted to the pace, and was ready for characters to progress and a plot to unfold, the house lights came up and it was intermission. The break in the action was terribly placed, just over 30 minutes into an hour and a half play (not including the 15-minute interval). It was jarring to slam on the brakes just as everything was gaining momentum.
Allan (David Lengel) imagines a date with Sharon (Elaine O'B. Capogeannis). Photo by Joel Castro.
Lengel tends to do an impersonation of Woody Allen, which is largely uninteresting, yet undeniably effective. The lead actor can hit a punch line, which is essential to the success of this quintessential comedy. Adversely, the rest of the cast was awkwardly weak. The parade of actresses were adequate at best and amateurish at worst. The imagined scenarios overall, were overdone. It's understandable to employ a certain theatrical flare, though at points the acting was too phony (ironic, as they were fantasies). Jack Winnick's portrayal of Bogart was intriguing at first, yet ultimately confusing. Rick Blain (Bogart's character in Casablanca) is referenced countless times, but Winnick was much too old to pull off anything close to that. (It should be noted that this is more of a casting flaw than an acting shortcoming.)
Despite the mediocrity of the production as a whole, seeing this masterpiece come to life in the flesh was a satisfying pleasure. Many of the jokes land thanks to a load-bearing performance by Lengel and the tightly paced scenes. Further more, part of the charm of this theatrical effort was its imperfection. The two hundred-seat Morgan Wixson Theater was irresistibly quaint. True, I wasn't blown away by the production, but the idiosyncratic experience was delightful.
This play is as fresh now as it was when it was originally produced 43 years ago. Astonishingly, the play manages to be edgy in a world where "pushing the envelope" has been dramatically redefined. It begs questions of love and boundaries that are timeless. And on top of everything, it's funny.
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