You either like Woody Allen, hate him, or don’t actually know that much about him beyond all that ugly Soon-Yi business. It may be my relative youth or it may be my relative lack of interest, but I fall into the latter category. I had always heard that Woody Allen’s earliest work was his cleverest and funniest, but all I knew was that he was a neurotic New York Jew with a penchant for talking to himself and I got that from a sketch on the old D-Generation Late Show.
So it came as a pleasant surprise to find that yes, Woody Allen was a clever and funny writer before he was a dirty old man. (OK, that’s the last I’ll mention Soon-Yi). The Arts Theatre’s production of Play It Again Sam was the eye-opener.
The play is about Allan Felix (Brad Turnbull), a neurotic New York Jew with a penchant for talking to himself. He writes for a film magazine, and loves old movies, particularly if they have Humphrey Bogart in them. Bogart is tough, straight-talking, hard-drinking and cool everything Allan is not. And because Allan’s been dumped by his wife (“She left me to go be a swinger”), he needs help picking up women enter Bogie (Rod Seel) into his consciousness.
Without wanting to give too much more of the plot away, I will say that Allan’s best friend Dick and his wife Linda (Stephen Davies and Frances Marrington) try to set him up with girls with disastrous/hilarious results and it’s no surprise whom he ends up falling for. Bogart’s role through this is to give advice to Allan, to help him become the Bogart we all secretly want to be.
Woody Allen expert am I not, but Bogie I get. The African Queen is one of my all-time favourite movies, and I think you’d be hard up trying to find a cooler character anywhere in cinema than Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon. This play is littered with Bogie references and in-jokes, and it’s a joy to watch them come out. Allan is also haunted by his ex-wife Nancy, and scenes between her and Bogie as angel/devil are fabulous.
Allan’s disastrous dates and his fantasies are by far the funniest elements of the play. All the cast take part in a fantasy sequence here or there and manage to pull them off. The scene where Dick turns into a jealous Italian husband wielding a spatula and threatening to kill Allan had me in absolute stitches.
Fantasy elements aside, the rest of the play is no less engaging. Frances Marrington is extremely watchable as the fun but emotionally fragile Linda, and Stephen Davies as Dick is hilarious with his constant business bungling and telephone calls. Rod Seel looks nothing like Bogart, but it doesn’t matter, as shadows and a hat covered everything. He has the voice and mannerisms down to a tee. And Brad Turnbull as Brad does a highly commendable job in taking on Allan’s neuroses. A vertically challenged actor himself (no offence meant!), he looks perfectly dwarfed in his big apartment a nice reflection of Allan’s own feelings of inferiority. Angie Whitely and Kathleen Lawton as Nancy and all other female characters round out the cast, bringing to life Allan’s disastrous dates with gusto.
The criticisms I have are all technical. They will either sort themselves out or be easily forgiven. Some of the timing is a bit off, and in a play like this you can’t afford to lose a single bit of hilarity. Time and regular audiences will deal with this problem. Some of the New York accents though commendable drop somewhat in places, but as Australians it can never be possible to do a genuine New York accent without a fair degree of rigorous training not really possible in community theatre. A more subjective criticism is that of Woody Allen’s personal appeal to the individual. Not knowing much about him I can understand why those who hate Woody Allen would find the monologues irritating. I would, however, encourage such people not to lose interest on those grounds alone, as the interaction between the characters is most engaging and worth the entry fee.
In sum, director John Boyce has brought us a fast-paced, entertaining comedy that appeals to the Bogart in us all. Here’s looking at you, kid. (What are those sirens? Oh no! It’s the cliché police coming to get me!!!) And as a footnote, Bogart of course never did say “Play it again Sam”, just as Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary my dear Watson”. However, it’s almost as much of a cliché to say Bogart never said “Play it again Sam”, as it is to say “Play it again Sam”, if you know what I mean.