Trying to capture Woody is tricky in Fine Arts Center's 'Play it Again, Sam'

By Tracy Mobley-Martinez Updated: February 11, 2014 at 11:49 am • Published: February 11, 2014 | 11:40 am 0

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Possibly, but in theater, its necessity can present certain challenges, including risking your audience's disappointment - for not doing it well or doing it so well that it precludes any fresh interpretation.

Just about every theater company in town has recently faced this dilemma, from "It's a Wonderful Life" at TheatreWorks to "The Odd Couple" at Springs Ensemble Theatre and Star Bar Players' "A Streetcar Named Desire."

The Fine Arts Center is in the final week of its production of Woody Allen's Tony-nominated play, "Play It Again, Sam." Sets, lighting and costumes seamlessly set the mood of this lonely New York apartment on West 10th Street. The sound, miraculously enough for the FAC, was good. Finally, the performances were entertaining, which is just the right note for this light fare.

Allen, who wrote and starred in both the 1969 play and 1972 film, is a forceful presence in "Play it Again, Sam," especially if you're familiar with Allen's penchant for putting himself in his work. That begs a few questions: Does director Joye Cook-Levy try to conjure a complete imitation of Allen's trademark delivery? Or is there room for interpretation?

Maybe you know the story. A nerdy but surprisingly narcissistic guy - film writer Allan Felix (Gary Littman) - can't quite get love right. Friends Linda and Dick Christie (Lija Fisher and Chad Siebert) prod the shut-in to get out after his divorce. They even set him up. But Felix repeatedly gets in his own way by nervously trying to impress with knowledge or personality he doesn't have.

They aren't Felix's only confidantes. In dreamy departures from reality that clinicians might describe as hallucinations, he replays moments from his past; imagines flattering (or damning) scenarios and people he admires. Ex-wife Nancy (Amy Sue Hardy) ("he's a watcher, not a doer") alternately taunts him and begs for him back, depending on Felix's mood. And Humphrey Bogart (Cory Moosman), playing the central role in Felix's favorite film, "Casablanca," coaches Felix on his love life.

"At the end of 'Casablanca,' when you lost Ingrid Bergman, weren't you crushed?'" Felix asks his trench-coated confidante (Cory Moosman, who gets the hard sweetness that Bogart could have).

"Nothing a little bourbon and soda wouldn't fix."

Perfectly delicious and one of the many moments that recall Allen's early comedy writing and his skill at writing telling but funny lines.

Does that specific voice require a spot-on imitation of Allen as Felix? Director Cook-Levy clearly thought so.

But if you go down that path, it needs to be 100 percent. And in Act I, Littman wasn't quite there. He looks the part: the curly hair, wiry body and diminutive stature. But every misstep - a slightly awkward bit, strained pratfall and inability to exactly hit Allen's trademark nasal delivery - adds up to a niggling sense that this Felix is a caricature, not a character.

In the final two acts, though, Littman hits his stride. Here, Allen's writing and the Equity actor's performance culls a real person - or at least as real as an Allen stand-in will ever be.

As Linda, Fisher brings her own vulnerability to the party. And Girl Scout buck-up-and-get-it-done-ness. In her place as a moon to Felix's sun, Fisher makes Linda's quiet slide into love with Felix believable and both welcome and weird.

Siebert turns on Dick's preoccupation with his business with a kind of live-wire tension. Siebert's Dick is a wisp of a presence during best friend Felix's travails and his wife's admonitions - appropriately so. And he manages Dick's change of heart with a kind of mad sweetness. Lovely.

Janson Fangio made costumes at ease in the time - without being showy. Jonathan Wentz's translation of a 1970s New York apartment is well rendered and well strategized: The space is small but Wentz makes it a cozy urban cocoon for Felix's virtual nervous breakdowns. And Holly Anne Rawls' lighting design did the nearly impossible: Bring her audience from the present to the past with little attention to the method.

"Play it Again, Sam"

Director: Joye Cook-Levy

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday

Where: Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.

Tickets: $27-$37, $15 students; 634-5583, csfineartscenter.org

Running time: 90 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission

Grade: B

What did you think of "Play It Again, Sam?" Send your thoughts to tracy.mobleymartinez@gazette.com.

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