It's been over 44 years since a young Woody Allen's second stage comedy, "Play It Again, Sam" opened on Broadway, but West Hartford's Playhouse on Park's new production shows that the work still has the ability to amuse and delight an audience on a chilly winter's night.
Admittedly some of Allen's references are outdated and his references to the "Swinging Sixties" are to contemporary eyes a little embarrassing. But if one accepts the time of a few weeks in the summer of 1970 and forgives the now somewhat campy turns of phrase, one can not only have an enjoyable time, but also relish the opportunity to rediscover one of the popular writer/filmmaker's early formative works.
The time period in which the play is set and in which it was written also marked a renewed interest in film after a decade or two of television domination, which allowed a new generation to appreciate the artistry of a number of cinematic treasures, including the classic film "Casablanca." In many ways, it's because of the legendary film's place in film history that enables "Play It Again, Sam" to remain relevant and relatable today. And with the ghost of Humphrey Bogart as Casablanca's Rick popping in and out of the action, you have a cultural icon whose presence has a humorously jarring impact upon the story.
Russell Treyz's production offers a winsome and winning look into the life of Allan Felix, a young, forlorn film critic reeling from his failed marriage and reluctant to jump back into New York's dating pool, circa 1970, when the rules were changing and sexual expectations were evolving. Allan Felix was, of course, a Woody Allen stand-in and in fact Allen played the part in both the stage and subsequent film versions. The character capitalized on the personality he perfected during his stand-up routines, that of an insecure, anxiety-ridden, self-deprecating Jewish intellectual.
Instead of attempting anything remotely resembling a Woody Allen impersonation, Treyz and his leading actor Zane Johnston instead portray the movie-obsessed Allan Felix as more of an awkward, self-conscious Matthew Broderick type and it ultimately suits the part quite well. While one misses the slicing line readings that Woody brought to the part, Johnston's Felix is more relatable as an everyman temporarily unlucky in love rather than as a too-smart-for-his-own good sometime cocky writer kvetching about being being a perpetual loser.
As a result, the laughs are more emotionally engaging and rely a bit more on physical comedy than intellectual wordplay. Johnson is more sweetly endearing rather than exasperating, even when depicting his former wife as an unconscionable shrew, as ably played by Bethany Fitzgerald in the first of her many marvelous multiple roles during the evening.
Felix's best friends are Dick and Linda Christie, he a high-powered neglectful Wall Street type and she a loyal, if frustrated wife used to filling her days with lunches with friends and visits to museums. As played by Dan Matisa, Dick is the picture of a concerned but constantly distracted friend. It's amusing, in this period before the cell phone and the pager, to see the mechanizations that Dick must go through in order to keep his office apprised of his whereabouts at all times. Though Matisa tends to play Dick on a single note, the actor does get to demonstrate his breadth during several fantasy sequences in which Felix imagines what Dick's reaction will be to certain items of potentially disturbing news.
Marnye Young is quite believable as Linda and it's quite easy to accept her and Matisa as a married couple from their first moments on stage. Young resists the temptation to push Linda into more outlandish territory, keeping her grounded throughout, while amply demonstrating the character's warmth and compassion.
Ted D'Agostino plays the suave figure of Bogey complete with tan trenchcoat and broad fedora, who turns up from time to time in Felix's mind to offer seduction tips and other pieces of worldly advice. While lacking the physical similarities to Bogart which were played up to maximum effect by a young actor named Jerry Lacy in the original play and film, D'Agostino does manage a decent vocal impression of the actor and approximates the actor's movements, including his trademark touching of the brim.
Rik Diaz returns to the Playhouse to create a Manhattan apartment of the era, complete with the console television and the then-popular beanbag chair, the subject of some physical humor later in the play. He employs as he did with the Playhouse's recent production of "Moonlight and Magnolias" the two pillars abutting the thrust stage, adorning them with such film memorabilia as glossies of Lauren Bacall and other stars. He fills the back wall of Felix's apartment with the now ubiquitous posters of some of Bogart's greatest screen turns, including not only "Casablanca" but "The African Queen" and "The Maltese Falcon" as well.
Erin Kacmarcik's costumes reflect the period and assist Fitzgerald in her many transformations throughout the evening as a procession of Felix's dates and other women in his life. Tina Louise Jones' lighting appropriately reflects the time of day and situations in this one-act, 80-minute work.
And as most film afficionados know, Bogart's Rick never utters the line "Play It Again, Sam" in "Casablanca," but Allen gives him the opportunity to speak it here, while allowing his stand-in, Felix Allan, to deliver one of Rick's final "Casablanca" speeches to delightful effect as well.
"Play It Again, Sam" is a slight comedy at best, but it makes for a suitable diversion as we frustratingly wait for the arrival of Spring.
For information and tickets, visit the Playhouse's website at www.playhouseonpark.org.