By John Quinn
As the days trickle down to these treasured few, and patrons of Detroit’s entertainment district still have to share parking with die-hard baseball fans, it’s easy to slip into nostalgia. Hey! Remember the World Series in ’68? No? Oh. So it’s fitting that the Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company launches a blast from the comic past as a “period” piece. Woody Allen’s 1969 Broadway comedy, “Play It Again, Sam,” has not aged well, so this production is a suitably retro romp.
This play represented a turning point in Allen’s work. He was still creating a forum for his stand-up routines and “Play It Again, Sam” subjects the audience to a relentless barrage of one-liners – some of them even on topic. However, while past works merely scratch the surface of interactions, “Sam” marks the turning point from Allen’s previous introspection toward a more mature understanding of romance.
Woody Allen owns the anxiety-ridden Nebbish like Chaplin owned The Little Hobo. Here, Allan Felix (Tommy Simon) is Allen’s hapless alter ego. A film critic obsessed with the on-screen persona of Humphrey Bogart, Allan is back in the dating game after his wife walks out. Unhappy he doesn’t measure up to his cinema idol, Allan daydreams, summoning the shade of “noir” Bogart to advise him on romantic strategy. He gets more realistic help from his married friends, Linda and Dick, who set him up with likely matches and are there to comfort him in his serial failures. Allan finds himself falling in love with Linda and the dissonance between dream and reality is both funny and sad.
There are compelling reasons to stage this play as if it were four decades ago. There is a running gag where best-friend Dick constantly calls his office to leave numbers where he can be reached – no cell phones, capice? More important is the disconnection caused by 40 years of feminist progress that has altered our appreciation of Allen’s rather juvenile approach to sex. We get the humor IN context, but otherwise it’s a little creepy.
Lastly, a little Allen angst goes a long, long way.
By and large, director Frannie Shepherd-Bates succeeds in preserving the comedy in this classic. Rough spots remain, though, especially in more physical bits, where the pratfalls look contrived. There are technical problems due to the limited facilities at 1515 Broadway. The small stage is cluttered with Felix’s living room/home office that must have made blocking difficult. Also, while the jazz renditions of Thelonious Monk are like the summer rains to our parched ears, when they drown out large sections of dialogue they defeat their purpose. On a brighter note – literally – costumer Katie Casebolt assembled a mish-mash of period styles that nicely complement the light comedy.
Tommy Simon plays a dead-on Woody Allen in his portrayal of Allan Felix, yet one wonders if this was the right way to go. Woody Allen’s film characters will be with us always, but if his legacy is to last on stage they need a more universal root. They’re no longer so much “Woody Allen” as they are “Everynebbish.”
Brian Papandrea, on the other hand, deftly channels Bogart without actually impersonating him.
As light autumn fare, “Play It Again, Sam” might divert your attention from the Michigan winter to come.
‘Play It Again, Sam’
Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company at 1515 Broadway, 1515 Broadway St., Detroit. Friday-Sunday through Oct. 17. $18. 313-408-7269. http://www.magentagiraffe.com