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A CurtainUp Review

A Second Hand Memory

Everyone means well but somehow life doesn't work out. ---Alma
Elizabeth Marvel, Second Hand Memory
Elizabeth Marvel (Photo: Carol Rosegg )
When Elizabeth Marvel as narrator Alma Wolfe declares that "life somehow doesn't work out" she could be talking about the play she's in as well as the lives of its characters. I'm sure Woody Allen didn't mean to write a memory play that comes off as a second-rate Arthur Miller/Neil Simon family saga, but, that's exactly what A Second Hand Memory is. As all the characters in the play are disappointed in the cards life has dealt them, so Allen's fans are likely to be disappointed not to find his characters likeable or at least compellingly unsympathetic.

It pains me to give a thumbs down to Allen's second Off-Broadway play in two years, as I've long enjoyed his films and admired some of his published writings. But why is a man this original and funny writing plays that borrow bits and pieces from his movies and also seem to be channeling other well-known playwrights? (Last year's Writer's Block opened with a one-acter that not only brought to mind Allen's most serious film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, but Edward Albee's The Zoo Story).

Like the Franz family in Miller's The Price, the Wolfes in Allen's play have fallen on hard financial times and their memories -- actually a "second hand" account by their long absent daughter Alma as a semi-fantasy figure who can walk through the walls of Santo Loquasto's multi-level set -- are filled with ruminations on paths not taken. The Wolves live in the 1950s (though the set, clothes and music have a 1930-40s feel) , so their reduced circumstances stem not from the great depression but from Lou Wolfe's (Dominic Chianese) jewelry business falling prey to an embezzling employee -- a disaster that the always enraged Lou blames on his son Eddie's (Nicky Katt) having left the business to pursue a more creative life in Hollywood.

It's Eddie's Hollywood dreams and his sister Alma's ambitions to be a poet that raise the flickering shadow of Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs. Unfortunately, A Second Hand Memory doesn't pack enough emotional wallop, or the warmth and humor that would make one salute Allen for tipping his hat to these playwrights -- or better yet, offer us his own satiric view.

The large sign with the name of the Brooklyn apartment house into which the Wolfes had to move after losing their home sets the tone for this story of lives in which the downward mobility leading to the Excelsior apartment caps a familial pattern of frustrated dreams. Faye (Beth Fowler) abandoned her acting ambitions for marriage and family. But it turns out that life with Lou Wolfe isn't really the path towards either financial security or marital stability. Lou's jewelry business would have floundered long ago without financing from Faye's Hollywood wheeler-dealer brother Phil (Michael McKean). He's also had an affair which has carved a deep and painful fault line into the family dynamic. Worse still, in his determination to pass on his business to Eddie (who predictably wants to follow his sister's path towards a freer, more creative life), what Lou is really passing on to his son is a familial pattern of being tied to one woman while yearning for another.

While director Allen has steered a top tier cast to make the most of the clichéd characters he's written for them, the only real standout is Michael McKean. Last seen on Broadway as Hairspray's Edna Turnblatt, he's right on the mark as the slick Hollywood agent with occasional lapses of sentiment about his Brooklyn roots and more scruples about leaving his wife than Lou -- well, at least until he falls for his gorgeous young secretary. It is that same secretary (Erica Leerhsen) with whom Eddie falls in love, unaware that the uncle who helped him get a foothold in Hollywood is the man she really wants.

Katt's major acting achievement is that if you closed your eyes you might think that you're listening to Woody himself. Though younger and cuter than Allen, Katt has perfectly captured what I've come to think of as the Woody-whine. The always marvelous Elizabeth Marvel brings the right touch of all-seeing irony to the family member who despite her physical separation bears its dysfunctional scars. Yet, like everyone else she seems hobbled by the derivativeness that overhangs this whole enterprise.

Laura Bauer’s costumes, James F. Ingall's lighting and Obadiah Eaves' sound design evoke the aura of the Brooklyn with which Allen and his characters have a love-hate relationship. Too bad the consistently downbeat view also sends the audience out of the theater feeling less nostalgic than depressingly unfulfilled.

Here's a link to my review of Woody Allen's previous writing/directing venture for Atlantic Theater Writer's Block (Riverside Drive & Old Sayville)

Written and directed by Woody Allen.
Cast: Elizabeth Marvel (Alma Wolfe), Dominic Chianese (Lou Wolfe), Nicky Katt (Eddie Wolfe), Beth Fowler (Fay Wolfe), Kate Blumberg (Bea Wolfe), Michael McKean (Phil Wellman) and Erica Leerhsen (Diane).
Set Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Laura Bauer
Lighting Design: Jim Ingalls
Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street (8th/9th Avenues), 212/239-6200
From 11/03/04 to 1/23/05; opening 11/22/04.
Tuesday-Saturday evenings at 8pm, Sunday evening at 7:30 pm and matinees on Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. Added holiday performances: Wednesday, November 24 at 3 pm; Wednesday, December 22 at 3 pm and Thursday, December 24 at 3 pm.
Tickets are $60.00
. Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 2nd press performance
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