Woody Allen is back on screen—and better than ever—in his critically acclaimed box-office smash Midnight In Paris, making the Morgan-Wixson Theatre’s decision to program one of Allen’s earliest hits as part of their 2011-12 season a stroke of prescient genius. That Morgan-Wixson’s staging of Play It Again Sam, Allen’s late-1960s comedy about a Humphrey Bogart-obsessed nebbish, turns out to be quite a gem of a production is icing on the cake.

Standing in for Woody on the Morgan-Wixson stage is David Lengel in the role of film writer Allan Felix (the part Allen originated on Broadway in 1969 and reprised onscreen three years later), a 20something nerd whom we first discover seated on his living room sofa mouthing the words to Humphrey Bogart’s The Maltese Falcon, a poster of Bogie’s Casablanca adorning the wall behind him.

“How does he do it?” Allan wonders aloud before revealing the reason for his distress. “Two years of marriage down the drain. I couldn’t believe it when she told me,” upon which Allan’s ex-wife Nancy (J.C. Wendel) pops up in his fantasy to declare in no uncertain terms, “I don’t want any alimony. You can have anything. I just want out.” Ouch!

Allan then continues, in a series of stream-of-consciousness one-liners that might have come out of just about any Woody Allen character’s mouth over the past four decades, “How can there be a sexual problem? We weren’t even having relations. Well, once in a while. But she used to watch television during it … and change channels with the remote control switch. What’s the matter with me? Why can’t I be cool? What’s the secret?”

At this point, who should show up suddenly in film writer Allan’s imagination (and before our very eyes) but Humphrey Bogart himself in Rick Blaine trench coat and fedora. “There’s no secret, kid,” Bogie reveals. “Dames are simple. I never met one who didn’t understand a slap in the mouth or a slug from a forty-five.”

Women’s rights advocates can rest assured that Allan Felix won’t be doing any slapping or slugging over the next ninety minutes. What he does set out to do is find a Nancy replacement with the help of best friends Dick and Linda Christie (Doug Oliphant and Athena Jade Bergen) and occasional fantasy appearances by guess who.

Along the way, love-starved Allan goes out on a series of dates (blind and otherwise) with a succession of women who don’t live up to Linda’s “long blond hair and short skirts and big chest and boots.” There’s Sharon (Veronica Raulin), a serious bespectacled sort who’s nothing at all like the “Dream Sharon” (Elaine O’B. Capogeannis) he’s imagined; Gina (Nicole Christman), who rejects Allan’s attempts at a kiss with a succinct “Don’t!”; Vanessa (Salina Soto), who had her first man at twelve, after which “it was an endless stream. Some were gay, but what does it matter?”; a sexy blonde Go-Go Girl (Maria Dalbotten); and an Intellectual Girl (Chelsey Holland), whose musings on life would plummet even an eternal optimist to the pits of despair.

Meanwhile, with workaholic Dick at this phone number or that one or another (these were pre-cell phone days, remember?), Linda finds herself with considerable free time on her hands, time she passes attempting to cheer up Allan. And if you can’t figure out what the consequences of that are, well, you simply haven’t seen enough romcoms.

Director Paul Guay is a lifelong Woody Allen fan, and it shows in his confident direction. As for his leading man, the director could not have found a more perfect Allan in all of Los Angeles than Lengel, whose madcap performance in last year’s The Big Woogie won him an Outstanding Featured Performance Scenie Award.

Lengel is simply brilliant as the Bogie-&-Nancy obsessed Allan, a role which has him onstage virtually throughout Play It Again Sam’s brisk three acts, and while any actor standing in for Allen is sure to bring to mind Woody’s trademark style, Lengel makes Allan absolutely his own. Simply put, Lengel’s star turn is worth the price of multiple admissions.

Oliphant does terrific work as the work-obsessed Dick, recent New York-to-L.A. transplant Bergen brings girl-next-door sparkle and charm to Linda, and leggy Wendel is a hilarious, mini-skirted hoot as Nancy. Christman, Dalbotton, Holland, and Soto impress in their brief cameos, and Raulin and Capogeannis both shine in larger roles. Jack Winnick comes close to nailing Bogart’s signature delivery, but the role ought to have gone to an actor a couple decades closer to Bogart’s age (41) when he filmed Casablanca.

Set designer/technical director Thomas A. Brown’s New York apartment is one of Morgan-Wixson’s best, with Robert Davis’s lighting design an imaginative standout as well. Garrett Rockey’s excellent sound design is inventive too. (Note the movie projector whir that accompanies Bogie’s every appearance.) Frankie K. Foster has designed a bevy of character-revealing 1970s outfits. David Feinman’s original music and set dresser Tracy Saltzman’s props also deserve kudos.

Mary Beth Sciarabba is producer, Cho Yeon Kim assistant costumer, George Nikitas stage manager, Risa Garza assistant stage manager, and Thomas A. Brown technical director.

Woody Allen’s name and David Lengel’s performance guarantee the Morgan-Wixson one of their biggest non-musical hits ever. With only three more weekends left in the show’s all-too-brief run, reserve your tickets asap. Trust me. Only hotcakes will be selling faster.

Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.

–Steven Stanley
January 22, 2012
Photos: Joel Castro

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