Wanna hear a dead-on scenario for a hit comedy? It goes like this.
In Play It Again, Sam by Woody Allen, Allan Felix is a New York film critic and victim of a sudden, painful divorce. His soon-to-be ex-wife Nancy pulls no punches in telling him why, and out the door she goes. End of a two-year marriage.
Enter Dick and Linda Christie, Allan's upwardly mobile best friends, with faddish remedies to keep him on his feet and enthused about his dating prospects. He's only 29, with all the stuff needed to get into the game in trendy 1969 style. Dick and Linda volunteer as an unofficial dating service, and a parade of zesty candidates comes Allan's way. He'll attempt to make the leap to "freaks, nymphomaniacs and dental hygienists" and become (a 150-pound) Tarzan of the Big Apple.
But for Play It Again, Sam to succeed, one must play along with Woody, too, and exploit not only his comic buffooneries but his inventive stagecraf. In the otherwise competent Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center production, too much owes to the excellent performance by Gary Littman as Allan Felix (who is, of course, Allen's onstage alter ego), and not enough to the playwright himself.
For another occupant is in residence with Allan, unseen by anyone else — and he's put there, frankly, to steal the show.
It's trenchcoated Humphrey Bogart of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, summoned into duty now from Allan's (and Allen's) anarchic subconscious. He's a conjured mythic presence, and a combined life coach and alter ego for Allan. Director Joye Cook-Levy lacks clarity, however, in offsetting the virtual Bogie of Allan's imagination from his actual friends, and much of Allen's humor is sacrificed as a result. Never shadowy or dreamlike, this "Bogie" is as spectral, idealized and otherworldly as a pizza delivery man without the pizza.
No fault to Cory Moosman, who plays it close and safe as Bogie, though he seems straight-jacketed by hesitancy, either his own or Cook-Levy's. It's Bogart who's got all the ammo and navigational tactics to see Allan through, and the capable Moosman can use a freer hand in laying it on the line for Allan.
Playing along with Woody also means recognizing his surprising ethical stances, not just his humorous path to them. It's an overlooked aspect of Allen's work that adds to our enjoyment, despite his private waywardness in recent years (and worse, currently). He's a modern Aristophanes, and Play It Again, Sam, which many consider among his very best works, has a lot to say in this regard, though it is noticeably downplayed at the FAC.
All of Allen's laughs and punch lines are there, but they are delivered at one speed and tone. Jonathan Wentz's design of Allan's West 10th Street apartment, like his Irish pub on display at TheatreWorks' The Weir, is colorful and impressive, but looks unlived in, with no signs of either marriage or bachelorhood to echo Allan's state of mind.
Littman, however, with the unspoken task of transforming himself into Allen, doesn't show the least hint of clichéd imitation, processing, or parody. He manages every signature tic and ouchy squirm with a refreshing, hysterical originality. If he takes attention away from his onstage partners, we gladly let him have it.