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Don’t let the glasses fool you. In The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall, Josh Lefkowitz may be playing leading man Henry Poole as a Woody Allen doppelgänger, but there’s more than a bit of This American Life host Ira Glass to him too. The helplessly ingratiating smile, the sly, sideways storytelling. The actor doesn’t just let fly with Henry’s quips, he wraps his body around them, sidling up to punch lines, cocking his head one way and curling his leg the other to send zingers zinging so unpredictably that an audience never quite knows where it’s about to be tickled.
Henry is the linchpin in a nifty comic throwback—a lightweight romcom of the sort that used to be the lifeblood of Broadway in the days before megamusicals took over and $110 orchestra seats became the norm. Washington used to play host to a few of them during tryout season every year—Cactus Flower with Lauren Bacall, Three Bags Full with Paul Ford.
Forty years ago, one of these lightweight confections tried out at the National Theater. It had a movie-referencing title and a plot about a nebbishy, fourth-wall-breaking hero who seeks romantic inspiration in Humphrey Bogart flicks. At the time, nobody’d really heard of Woody Allen; Play It Again Sam changed that.
Now, just blocks away at Theater J, playwright Sam Forman’s found a way to, um, play it again, in an eminently Broadway-worthy comedy with a movie-referencing title and a plot about a nebbishy, fourth-wall-breaking hero who seeks romantic inspiration in Woody Allen flicks. Nobody’s really heard of Sam Forman at this point, but I suspect that’ll change too. Lightning has, to a far greater extent than anyone has any right to expect, struck twice.
And not because the young playwright is slavishly mimicking his muse, though from the script’s references to the obscurer corners of the Allen oeuvre, you’ll gather that he’s a dedicated aficionado. Forman’s central gimmick is different (Woody never materializes onstage as Bogie did), and so is his hero’s comic voice—less guilt-ridden than irony-addled; ’60s angst recast so it sounds right coming from a post-millennial dweeb.
In fact, even calling Henry the evening’s hero is overstating a bit. Behind the audience asides and Allen-esque glasses, Lefkowitz lets us see that inside the show’s leading man lurks a second-banana yearning to be free. The plot hinges on 29-year-old Henry’s fear that he’ll be a failure if he doesn’t have a show on Broadway by the time he turns 30. He and his stoned composer buddy Will (Matthew A. Anderson) spend the first part of the evening tossing around adaptation possibilities—a musical Schindler’s List? Titus Obamacus?—but Henry’s actions are those of a man more interested in being in the proximity of fame than in being famous himself.
Take the way he goes after the musical rights to Annie Hall once they’ve settled on that title, cozying up to the film producer’s daughter (Maureen Rohn) by looking her up on Facebook, memorizing her interests, and presenting himself, Zelig-like, as her soulmate. Or note the obsequiousness with which he approaches a humor-challenged Tortured Genius of a composer—played by Alexander Strain as an ego with toe rings and a 6-foot scarf—who’s already acquired the rights and just might need a librettist.
That Henry’s betraying—or at any rate, hoping to betray—both Will and Annie (Tessa Klein), his girlfriend of 12 years, bothers him only after the fact. And it would likely bother audiences if Lefkowitz weren’t making him such amusing theatrical company. Warned by the producer’s daughter that he should steer clear of her because she’s trouble, he delivers the would-be macho comeback, And I’m sayin’, what if I like trouble? in a manner so hysterically hesitant, that what might have been a throwaway becomes a haymaker. Lefkowitz can also take a mean pratfall when required, and I’ve never seen an actor pull a punch to such hilarious effect.
Strain’s egomaniacal composer is a wonderful foil for Henry, whether selling a hilariously dreadful “Ballad of Annie Hall” to the rafters (Gabriel Kahane composed the deliciously overwrought music), or soaking up the compliments he regards as his due. Anderson makes the gay stoner who is Henry’s best bud both funny and the evening’s conscience. And if the show’s women have been given less outsized personal quirks to work with, they still land their punch lines and their emotional punches deftly. Nothing devastating, mind you.
While a cursory familiarity with Annie Hall won’t hurt—the evening’s plot echoes the film’s, particularly its ending—Foreman has been smart enough about laying out the script’s references so clearly that you needn’t study up in advance. Shirley Serotsky’s observant, sharply paced staging assumes a certain basic literacy, but she’s made sure the scenes play as scenes, even when they’re at least partly homages. And just so that more casual filmgoers won’t feel left out, designer Robbie Hayes has provided a theater marquee and film posters to point up parallels where they might be useful.
All in the service of a whole Netflix queue’s worth of plot points, a raft of theater and film in-jokes, and a romcom story that’ll work just fine even for those who don’t get most of them.