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Nicky Katt, Beth Fowler, and Dominic Chianese in
A Second Hand Memory
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Woody Allen watchers, of whom there are apparently fewer these days than there used to be, know that his work frequently reflects an admiration for imposing predecessors. More than anything, this is a manifestation of Allen's wide-ranging command of cultural history. Over the years he's made his most frequent nods in Ingmar Bergman's direction. But Allen has tested his mimetic powers on others, too -- not only when spoofing them, as in his Gustave Flaubert-tweaking short story The Kugelmass Episode, or honoring them.

Occasionally, the mischievous Allen goes straight, like an errant schoolboy abruptly deciding that he'd better buckle down to his homework or risk having to repeat a grade. With his 1981 play The Floating Light Bulb, he bowed to Clifford Odets. With his new play, A Second Hand Memory, he's writing as Arthur Miller. His blend of realism and fantasy owes more than a little in mood, presentation, and even subject matter to Death of a Salesman.

It's almost as if Allen had challenged himself to write a drama in Miller's mode without considering what success in the enterprise would signify. Achieving his aim -- which he more or less has done -- only means that, at best, he's completed something in someone else's signature style. But clever imitation falls far short of the work that springs from Allen's brain when he lets his enviable imagination edge its way into newer forms. Why write like Arthur Miller and include virtually no laugh lines when you can write like Woody Allen because you are Woody Allen? Not that A Second Hand Memory doesn't include familiar Allen elements. (Incidentally, second-hand should be hyphenated but isn't, begging the question, "What is a hand memory?") The setting is Allen's beloved yet despised Brooklyn. The characters nursing thwarted dreams include a few who are either showbiz denizens or showbiz aspirants. Allen aficionados have seen them handled most creatively in the film Radio Days, wherein the writer-director both wallowed in and spoofed nostalgia.

There's nothing nostalgic about A Second Hand Memory. It's more a case of anti-nostalgia, as Alma Wolfe (Elizabeth Marvel) -- maximizing her omniscient narrator's ability to walk through walls -- tells the story of how, in the '50s, her family fell apart after she'd already fled from it. A disappointment to her hot-headed father, Lou (Dominic Chianese), because as the first-born she was a daughter, Alma recounts the series of events that led to an even greater disappointment provided by younger brother Eddie (Nicky Katt). Expected to take over his father's jewelry business, Eddie instead goes to Hollywood at the instigation of his mother, Fay (Beth Fowler); there he'll work for her brother, Phil Wellman (Michael McKean), a big-time agent. Though the new setup looks hopeful, it founders when Eddie, enamored of Phil's receptionist Diane (Erica Leerhsen), learns that she's marrying Phil. Eddie quits and heads back east to hawk gems and marry Bea (Kate Blumberg) on the rebound. He still has his eye on big business deals, though, and when a promised loan from Phil evaporates, he works another angle to everyone's chagrin.

Alma, all the time dropping comments about her promiscuity in many spots on the globe, also exposes some decidedly melodramatic Brooklyn-based events. Not only does Lou ruminate daily on an aborted extra-marital affair that has also nagged at Fay through the years, but son Eddie repeats the dissatisfied hubby pattern by carrying the torch for Diane while Bea carries their first child. There are patterns in families, Allen is saying -- but, of course he's not the first playwright to notice. He spills the poorly kept family secrets with almost predictable rhythm and he also includes at least one equally shopworn out-in-the-open situation: the clumsy development by which Phil comes to deny Eddie the agreed-on stake. If it had been written by someone else, this would be the kind of thing that Allen would relish satirizing.

Michael McKean in A Second Hand Memory
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Serving as his own perfection-hungry director, as usual, Allen has signed set designer Santo Loquasto -- a longtime favorite of his -- to create the cramped Brooklyn apartment that Fay is ashamed to show to brother Phil. Laura Bauer assembled the just-right period clothes, including a Christian Dior knock-off for shallow Diane to wear when she's risen in Hollywood circles. Lighting designer James F. Ingalls and sound designer Obadiah Eaves do their professional stuff. (Eaves plays recordings by Tony Bennett, Kay Starr, and their ilk to evoke the Eisenhower era.)

In the polished cast, Shirley MacLaine lookalike Elizabeth Marvel does some amused gloating as she haunts the Wolfe family. Curiously, she uses a pronounced Brooklyn accent that no one else sees fit to match. As Phil, Michael McKean nails a Hollywood mogul who retains a modicum of humanity. Dominic Chianese's Lou and Beth Fowler's Fay bite each other's heads off with savage intensity. As the younger but equally trapped members of the younger generation, Nicky Katt, Kate Blumberg, and Erica Leerhsen score points.

Towards the end of her bittersweet report and when she's still lighting tobacco-free cigarettes, Alma utters this droll comment: "Einstein said, 'Everything is relative.' " The quip is superb, because with it Allen bends the theory of relativity to fit an entirely different context -- and, in the late Freudian age, would anyone argue with his placing blame for humanity's calamities on family dysfunctions? Just as in life, however, everything in art is relative. So, relative to last season's Writer's Block, A Second Hand Memory is a vast improvement, but relative to Allen's gems, the new play registers as an earnest pastiche yet is a couple of quantum measures less than outstanding.

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