BWW Reviews: Playhouse on Park's PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM a Rediscovered Woody Allen Gem
Of all of filmdom's matinee idols, one of the most mysterious was Humphrey Bogart. Nothing about this man would have immediately marked him for making ladies swoon. He wasn't particularly attractive like Cary Grant or Clark Gable. He wasn't smooth and romantic like a Bing Crosby or Gene Kelly. His almost indefinable appeal really comes down to one trait: cool.
If one of filmdom's major comic geniuses is the opposite of cool, it is Woody Allen. A jittery neurotic, Allen perfectly epitomizes the self-obsessed 60s and 70s the way Bogey captured the Noirish swagger of the 30s and 40s. Allen mines this juxtaposition in his 1969 stage comedy Play It Again, Sam.
Playhouse on Park charmingly revives this somewhat lesser Allen vehicle now through March 24th. Although an early work in his oeuvre, Play It Again, Sam anticipates many of the hallmarks that continue to appear throughout the Woodman's films: a New York setting, romantic failures, psychoanalysis, magical realism, a fixation on classical music, jazz and Golden Age films. One only need to look at the basic elements of the play to see the continuum from Sam to 1977s Annie Hall to 2011's Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris.
Unlike some of Allen's forays into drama (Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, etc.), Play It Again, Sam is straight comedy. Allan Felix, a cinema enthusiast and writer (sound like anyone we know?,) has been recently and unwillingly divorced from his flaky wife. Newly single, he must figure out how to negotiate the dating scene in New York with the help of his friends Dick and Linda. Unable to rise above being a noodge, Allan fantasizes about his screen hero Humphrey Bogart giving him romantic advice (a trick Allan reprises in his most recent film, To Rome With Love).
Actor Zane Johnson is tasked with the role of Allan and, as is almost always the case with an actor cursed with being Woody Allen's surrogate, the results are a mixed bag. In many of Allen's recent films, he has other actors stand in for roles written around the comic legend's very particular vocal mannerisms, agitations and neuroses. I've found this an annoying trait in some of the films (think John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway or Jason Biggs in Anything Else), but divorcing the dialogue from Allen himself, you cannot help but hear in his voice in the words. It is akin to putting someone in a Charlie Chaplin film or Marx Brothers film - they are, in a way, irreplaceable.
Mr. Johnson pushes the character too hard in the early going of the play. Feeling more like an overly-caffeinated WASP, he hammers hard for laughs on lines that are meant to be delivered like casual throwaways. About two-thirds of the way through, particularly in scenes opposite Marnye Young's Linda, Johnson and director Russ Treyz relax and right-size the performance, comfortably finding a winning, comic balance that hits just the right tone. At this point, Johnson makes the character funny and more believably his own.
As Dick, Allan's best friend, Dan Matisa does a good job of hitting his laughs as the play progresses. A part originally created by Allen favorite Tony Roberts, Matisa is not hemmed in by the character burdens inherent with Johnson's role. His surprisingly emotional scene late in the game is handled beautifully.
As the apparition of Humphrey Bogart, Ted d'Agostino is surprisingly slight. Evidencing little of Bogey's strange, Alpha Male allure, the performance feels like a missed opportunity until, again, late in the play he becomes more fully invested in the tough-guy approach to handling a woman. In an extended sequence opposite Linda, d'Agostino finally becomes Bogey and the conceit works as intended.
As with many Allen comedies, the best roles and performances are handled by the women. Marnye Young stands in for Linda, a role originally played by Diane Keaton. Quirky in her own right, Young is a sweet, manic match for her Allan/Allen. Her 70s attire, designed by Erin Kacmarcik, serves the character perfectly (although an unfortunate Bumpit hairstyle serves her poorly).
Rapidly becoming one of my favorite local stage fixtures, Bethany Fitzgerald shines in a variety of comedic roles as unsuitable mates for Allan. An intuitive comic actress, she nails her laughs every time she is on stage and evidences why women like Dianne Wiest and Mira Sorvino have managed to snag Academy Awards for appearing in Allen's films. Saddled with a few seriously bad wigs and outfits, Fitzgerald is a riot in multiple parts that were originally played on Broadway by seven different women. She leaves one saying, "Play it again, Bethany."
Photo of Marnye Young, Zane Johnson and Ted d'Agostino by Rich Wagner.