Henry Blume (Josh Lefkowitz) worships at the altar of Woody Allen, eats anti-anxiety drugs (without effect), writes about paranoia and anti-Semitism to an audience of zero, and lives off the largesse of his furniture-selling parents. He is about to blunder into the funniest play I have seen in DC this year, Theater J’s The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall.
Henry is a librettist who dreams of writing a musical that will catapult him to fame and fortune. He is nearly thirty, and he hasn’t had a hit since his graduate-school adaptation of The Seagull briefly earned him wunderkind status. His live-in girlfriend Annie (Tessa Klein) is running out of patience as she sees Henry schmoozing more than working. His writing partner/composer Will (Matthew A. Anderson) is a human cloud of marijuana smoke whose ideas are either ridiculous (Titus Obamacus!) or have been tried before.
Henry finally brainstorms an original and commercially viable idea, a musical version of Annie Hall. Henry’s first problem involves finding a connection to the holder of the rights, which involves him in some Facebook stalking of a character only identified as “Producer’s Daughter” (Maureen Rohn), a beautiful and complicated young woman. To make matters worse, Henry discovers that rights to a musical Annie Hall have already been optioned to a world-famous Tortured Genius (Alexander Strain). To achieve commercial success, Henry will face temptations that could threaten his relationships with Annie and Will.
This material could be stale or hackneyed in other hands, but playwright Sam Forman imbues Henry with such an appealing, nebbishy character that he seems to fall into his various calamities in fresh, intriguing ways. Henry certainly has his faults – he is an ambitious egotist who constantly Googles himself – but he is basically a sweet guy whose weaknesses recall the character Allen himself most frequently portrayed.
Lefkowitz and director Shirley Serotsky get this, and they give us a character whose rueful self-awareness reminds us that none of us is perfect and most of us aren’t even in the neighborhood. The frequent forays into audience-directed monologues – a frequent Allen device – play into the strength of Lefkowitz, an experienced monologist (Help Wanted, Now What?).
Lefkowitz has a natural feel for the Woody Allenesque humor that charms the audience even when Henry is behaving in a less than admirable manner. It is easy to empathize with the concerns of Henry and Annie as they face the pressures of a moment of truth for their careers and their relationship. The comedy is humorous but realistic, even in scenes that are bittersweet.
While the comedic monologues are amusing, their use verges on excess and the monologues do limit our time seeing Henry interact with the other characters. In particular, the script could better illustrate the positive aspects of Henry and Annie’s romance and why he might miss her if he can’t save the relationship.
All of the actors give strong performances. Anderson gives a convincing and funny take on the lovable stoner composer. Strain’s performance as the pretentious scion of a theatrical family serves as the basis for much of the play’s winning satire. Rohm exhibits just enough vulnerability to add dimension to her intellectual ice princess.
Sam Forman’s smart and witty script also adeptly skewers the world of theatre and the route to show biz success. To paraphrase Tortured Genius in less profane language, Broadway’s not for weaklings.
In Play It Again, Sam, Allen’s character is guided to success by the ghost of his icon, Humphrey Bogart. During the performance of the hilarious The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall, it is easy to imagine the Woodman sitting in the balcony of Theater J wearing an uncharacteristically broad smile.
The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall
By Sam Forman
Directed by Shirley Serotsky
Original Music by Gabriel Kahane
Presented by Theater J
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.