Humphrey Bogart never actually said "Play it again, Sam" in Casablanca. But somehow the line has lived on and permeated the culture. It stands for the reckless, sophisticated tough guy Bogart usually played--the stuff of male role models for the last fifty-odd years. Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam brings Bogart back to life as a phantom mentor to a nerdy, nervous 1970s divorce. A terrifically funny film back in 1972, it still works surprisingly well as a play. And the Avenue Theater is just the right venue for the show's goofy soliloquies and intelligent humor.
Allan Felix writes essays for a film magazine, but he can't relate to women in the real world. His hero is Bogart, so Bogart drops in from time to time to give him advice about how to handle women. Quoth Bogey, "Dames are simple. I never knew one who didn't understand a slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45." Not much help on a date, perhaps, but it's really Bogart's confidence that Allan needs.
As the show opens, Allan's wife has just left him. Despondent, resentful and hopelessly uncoordinated, he's become an aspirin junkie, trying to ease his psychological pain with remedies for physical ailments. His best friends, Dick and Linda Christie, try to coax him out of his depression, setting him up with various attractive women. But none of these relationships works out; he just can't seem to read the girls' signals right.
Through all this, Linda sticks by Allan, while Dick, her loving but workaholic husband, goes off on business trips or trips out over one disastrous deal or other. As neurotic as Allan himself, Linda finds with her friend the warmth and attention she's missing in her marriage. But each of them is too decent to break Dick's heart.
Allan's fantasies are played out on stage with a slight change of lighting so you can tell the difference between external and internal dialogue. Director John Ashton's attention to details--from quick costume changes to the variety of carefully chosen props to the racy pace and balance of talents--ensures the show's entertainment value.
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But it's Duane Black's marvelous, understated characterization of Allan that makes the show memorable. Woody Allen wrote the screenplay and played the part in the film, so many of his own personality quirks glimmer at the bottom of Black's interpretation. But Black makes the part his own--and his is a much more real, immediate interpretation than even Woody's.
When Black speaks to other characters, his voice patterns vary and his energy climbs. When he goes into one of his long internal debates, however, his voice drops to a monotone--a little like wind sighing across a desolate moor. Black's flights of ego--inevitably followed by crashes of self-esteem--are so carefully controlled that they never feel like shtick.
Heidi Olson seems miscast as Linda; she projects world-weariness rather than cute neurosis and, though it's a competent performance, it's not an exciting one. But the rest of the cast balances Black's quiet craziness quite well. Steven St. James underplays Bogart just right. Stacy Carson looks kind of ordinary but kicks in an extraordinary performance as best friend Dick--every time he's on stage, he rivets our attention. Dana Kerwin plays Allan's various dates with inventive variety, and Cody Alexander makes the perfect breezy, castrating ex-wife.
Woody Allen has perfected the role of the overwrought, high-strung schmo who fights his own unruly limbs and complex insecurities in his search for someone to love. Bogart is the perfect comic foil to a cinephile's timidity--and Black's engaging performance coupled with the simple, sweet resolution of the Avenue production make for a cool antidote to the summer blahs.