01 September 2014

'A Second Hand Memory' (2004)

[On 29 August, I posted an article by Kirk Woodward, a frequent contributor to this blog, on the Broadway production of the musical stage adaptation of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, based on his 1994 film of the same title.  Kirk used the musical, now closed, to look at why some musicals fare better than others.  In his discussion, Kirk noted that Allen had had some experience directing for the stage, most notably at New York City’s Atlantic Theater Company.  One of the productions the filmmaker and playwright staged there was his own play, A Second Hand Memory, presented at ATC from 22 November 2004 to 23 January 2005 at the Linda Gross Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea.  I saw that production and wrote a report on the presentation dated 13 December 2004, so I’m posting that archival record for readers of ROT to look back at a different sort of stage effort from the famous filmmaker.  (I also saw Allen’s play The Floating Light Bulb at Lincoln Center Theatre Company’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre, presented from 27 April to 21 June 1981 under the direction of Ulu Grosbard, but I have no written record of that production.)]

I have to question the perspicacity of the people at the Atlantic Theater Company: What made you even consider staging A Second Hand Memory?  (Okay, I know part of the answer to this one: two words—Woody Allen.)

Charles Isherwood nailed it.  I had read his New York Times review well before I saw the show.  (It opened just before Thanksgiving; the review’d been out for over two weeks.)  I went in determined to disagree with the review—because I just didn’t want to see another disappointing production; I wanted to like this one.  Unhappily, I can’t argue with Isherwood’s evaluation.  

Isherwood suggests that Allen’s play may have started out as a screenplay, and that may be true.  It zips around from Brooklyn to L.A., from the present (ca. 1955) to various points in the past, from “real” scenes (either past or present) to dreams and imaginary conversations with an absent character who serves as narrator (voice-over in a film, I’d imagine).  This can be disconcerting at times, since Santo Loquasto’s set never changes (nor does James F. Ingalls’s lighting for the most part) and sometimes a character will begin to do or say something that doesn’t seem to make sense relative to the immediate preceding moment—until you realize, they’re not in the apartment in the present now, they’ve transported to the past and they’re in the old house!  (The first time this happened to me, I only realized what had occurred on stage because I had read Isherwood’s review and he mentions this aspect of the production.  In other words, I only understood what was going on on stage because a reviewer had explained it to me.  That shouldn’t happen.)

I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself, I guess.  The play, like most of Allen’s works, film or stage, is about his family.  They’re the Wolfes here, and son Eddie is Woody.  I won’t prĂ©cis the plot for you, but I’ll tell you that Eddie (Nicky Katt) fled Brooklyn and pop’s jewelry business to work for his mother’s brother, a big agent in Hollywood.  He gets called back home when pop (Dominic Chianese) discovers that his bookkeeper and the man he took on to “replace” Eddie have robbed the business blind and he’s about to lose everything and Eddie has to come back to help him rebuild.  The resentments and sense of oppressiveness build all around as everyone—mom, pop, sister Alma (Elizabeth Marvel, the narrator, who’s not really “present”), Uncle Phil (Michael McKean), Eddie, and Eddie’s new wife (Kate Blumberg)—all harbor secrets, unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, conflicts, and wounds.  It’s all very, very contrived—the deck is so stacked that it would take a Ricky Jay to sort it all out.  

None of the characters is remotely sympathetic—or even pleasant to be around briefly.  Why someone hadn’t committed homicide before the play began is a mystery to me—though it’d be hard to pick one deserving victim from among the many available prospects.  The worst problem from a dramatic perspective is that, even among the unpleasant crew, there’s no one to care about.  I never once wanted anyone to win out over the arranged circumstances.  No one deserved to get out—so the end, whatever it turned out to be, wasn’t significant.  Not even the narrator-sister, who got out of the family early, has any claim on our sympathy.  Like everyone else, she’s supremely selfish.  She’s also extremely undramatic/untheatrical as a stage device—a cheap way to advance the plot.  (As it happens, the play doesn’t “end”; it just stops, with a deus ex machina that’s even more contrived than the rest of the plot.  And everyone loses, to one degree or another.)

There was nothing of Allen’s cleverness and idiosyncratic view of the world in the script.  There was no humor to enliven the abject misery.  Even the dialogue is brittle and artificial—almost as if it were a translation from some foreign language.  Allen also directed, so the line deliveries are his responsibility, and every character uttered words and phrases no one would use in ordinary conversation as glibly and automatically as these people did.  Not one actor stopped to collect his or her words or come up with the turns of phrase that just tumble out of everyone’s mouths.  They all talked like a writer writing—and I didn’t believe any of it for a minute.  (Even though the play has been running now for about three weeks, many of the cast had line bobbles that seem out of place.  This wasn’t an amateur cast—it’s headed by Chianese of The Sopranos as well as many stage productions.  I don’t know what this signifies, if anything, but it surprised me.)  By the way, this is where I disagreed slightly with Isherwood—though the consequence is minimal at most.  He objected to the acting of Nicky Katt, who lists only film and TV credits in his bio.  I didn’t find him any worse than the rest of the cast—who all seemed to be doing the best they could with the material.  Isherwood saw the show long enough ago that perhaps Katt has improved with experience (and, maybe, coaching).  His character, however, has clearly not improved—but that’s not his fault.

As I suggested above, I have to ask why the Atlantic would commit to a play as obviously bad as this.  Maybe it looked better than it turned out to be—though I can’t see any reason to assume the directing can have fixed or damaged the script.  Maybe Allen revised the script downward during rehearsal, but I suspect not.  As I said, the only answer I can give to my own question is that Atlantic liked the idea of doing a Woody Allen play—regardless of its quality.  I therefore question their judgment.  (If I’m right—and no one can say I am, but so what?—the reasoning goes something like this:  “Let’s do a play by a famous writer.  It’s a bad play, but we can sell it on his name.  It doesn’t matter that we then have to inflict the bad play on our audience.  That’s all right, because we make some money.”  It’s sort of laissez-faire capitalist reasoning.)

(What is it with producers these days, anyway?  I raised questions regarding Trying, the Fritz Weaver vehicle Off-Broadway, about why the play would be moved to New York from Chicago.  Now the Atlantic makes me wonder about their selections, and so does BAM with its selection of John Jesurun’s FAUST/How I Rose and David Gordon’s execrable version of Ionesco’s The Chairs.  Meanwhile, August Wilson has trouble keeping backers for Gem of the Ocean and almost loses a production because of it.  Doesn’t anybody here know how to play this game?)

I have to add one more thing about the Allen play.  About its title really.  Shouldn’t it read A Second-Hand Memory—with a hyphen?  His way, the title refers to something called a “hand memory”—whatever that would be—and the play is about the second one.  Okay, it’s silly, I suppose—but it’s annoying.  (The title refers to the fact that Alma, who is the storyteller, wasn’t actually present for any of the events of the play: she’s relying on “memories” that aren’t her own—things she gleaned from other sources.  In other words, ‘second-hand memories.’  Now that I think about it, that may be the best thing in the whole play—the title.  Unfortunately, the fact that it has to be explained by a narrator figure kind of ruins that one asset.  It’s sort of like the Beatles song quotes Jesurun salted into the script of FAUST: once a character actually acknowledges them, they’re no longer any fun.)

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