Theater Review: 'The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall' at Theater J

Tessa Klein and Josh Lefkowitz in
Tessa Klein and Josh Lefkowitz in "The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall," playwright Sam Forman's endearing Woody Allen homage at Theater J. (By Stan Barouh -- Theater J)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In his early stage and screen comedy "Play It Again, Sam," Woody Allen enshrined tough-talking Humphrey Bogart, the quintessential man's-man film star of the '40s, as a model for handling women and other intimidating tasks of modern life.

Now, a young dramatist named Sam -- Sam Forman -- plays it his own way, by turning the tables on Allen. Forman projects the nebbishy writer and movie director into something akin to the Bogart role in his new, on-the-fringe-of-showbiz satire, "The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall."

The result is an entertainingly cheeky and charming New York comedy, heavily seasoned with inside-theater jokes and, more to the point, the wit and wisdom of the man who first made neurotic self-absorption a turn-on.

If Theater J's "The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall," directed by Shirley Serotsky, accomplishes anything for the culture, it's to remind us of Allen's golden age, when his best work -- "Manhattan," "Hannah and Her Sisters" and the Oscar-winning "Annie Hall" -- set a standard for cinematic urbanity. Those movies had powerful moral cores, too, the kind that could make you feel virtuous for staying true to your quirky nature, for holding to your love of 4 1/2 -hour French documentaries -- or the unattainable object of your affections.

You can feel Allen's presence all through the world-premiere engagement of Forman's play -- and maybe at times, a bit too literally. As the evening's bespectacled Allenesque hero and narrator, ingratiatingly played by Josh Lefkowitz, regales us with the story of his struggles in love and work, a poster image for some applicable Woody Allen film is flashed on set designer Robbie Hayes's mock-up of a movie-theater facade. And on a marquee above, an ironic title materializes to provide a chapter heading for whatever comedic point Lefkowitz's Henry Blume is trying to make.

If the script had less allure, the meta-theatrical tinkering would be more understandable -- and more tolerable. But Forman's flavorful wit -- he knows a thing or two about the crispness of a one-liner -- gets all the rewarding underlining it needs in the musings of his main character and the outbursts of the cynical, fatuous and zany types with whom he mixes.

Forman's Henry addresses the audience in the D.C. Jewish Community Center's Goldman Theater in much the same manner as the voice of Allen's Alvy Singer takes us through the events of "Annie Hall." Not to give you too many of the parallels, but the play posits Henry as a deceptively sheepish, quip-ready Manhattan writer living (in a neighborhood he sarcastically describes as "Ground Zero-adjacent") with an actress from the Midwest named Annie (the appealing Tessa Klein).

Henry's aspiration is to write the libretto for a Broadway musical, a goal that remains elusive, at least as long as he spends fruitless days with his MacBook and his writing partner, a perpetually stoned composer embodied a tad too manically by Matt Anderson. After Henry learns that the theatrical wunderkind of the moment -- played by Alexander Strain and identified in the program only as "Tortured Genius" -- plans to adapt "Annie Hall" as a musical, he schemes to wangle a meeting and perhaps the job of the Genius's collaborator. How this pans out entails a subterfuge involving Facebook, lying to a movie producer's pampered daughter (the fetching Maureen Rohn) and enduring the Tortured Genius's lounge-lizard rendition of the musical's proposed title song.

Although the number doesn't sell you on the Tortured Genius's genius, Strain's self-adoring performance is a wit-filled variation on the egotists who are frequent Allen foils (see: Alan Alda pontificating on the roots of comedy in "Crimes and Misdemeanors"). The play is laced with contemporary allusions -- the gossip Web site Gawker might very well be making its theatrical debut here -- and only those with an obsessive-compulsive theatergoing disorder may get all the Broadway and off-Broadway references.

Among the names for which some might want to consult a guidebook: the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop and Angus McIndoe, the theater-district eatery. (A neat little shot is even taken at the exorbitant running time of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "August: Osage County.")

Strain's and Rohn's jaded authority helps to make juicy what comes out of their entitled characters' mouths, but it is Lefkowitz who bears the greatest share of the comic duties. He's appeared in Washington before, principally as star of his own one-man shows; the ability of the solo performer to make an audience his confidants serves Lefkowitz well. The character's believability as a doppelganger for Allen, however, is sometimes tougher to credit, for the actor and the playwright add an ambiguous edge to Henry's sexuality. This might be a modernist touch, but it also injects some unnecessary narrative confusion.

Still, Forman has composed an effective and affectionate homage. Any admirer of "Annie Hall" will appreciate the clever sway the movie maintains over the plot, down to the narrator's jokey storytelling and the lovers' eventual heart-to-heart. It's gratifying to sit in a theater and count the echoes of one of the most sophisticated comedies Hollywood ever produced. It just goes to show that after all these years, we still need the eggs.

The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall, by Sam Forman. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Original music, Gabriel Kahane; lighting, Garth Dolan; costumes, Deb Sivigny; sound, Matt Nielson; choreography, Matt Anderson. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through May 24 at Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit or call 800-494-TIXS.

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