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As the famous saying might go, "All unhappy families are
unhappy in their own way." As it turns out on stage at the Atlantic Theater, Woody
Allen's family was unhappy in the urban, Jewish way memorialized by the likes of Malamud
to Roth to Allen himself. Woody Allen, the boy, in A Second Hand Memory never
reveals how he will be father to the man. And that's the trouble with this play. Neither
the young hero nor anyone around him exhibits a trace of the wit, temperament,
consciousness, generally acerbic take on the world that makes, has made, Woody Allen a
household name. We hardly expect the boy to toss out the well honed bites (in both senses)
that come second-nature to his adult persona. We do, however, expect to hear something of
the quick undercut, the intellectual or self deprecating aside, perhaps even to catch a
glimpse of Allen the future nebbish who will romance the girl with glasses. But none of
these Allens appear.
This family lives in an apartment house called the Excelsior in Rockaway, New York--lower middle-class Jewish territory. The father has affairs, though he's a bit long in the tooth for credibility as a philanderer. The unmarried sister is a borderline alcoholic and he, the aspiring playwright, keeps his eye on Hollywood. Why not? May as well aim high if you feel a failure. A visit to the old neighborhood supplies the occasion for the play. He's broke; he hopes to borrow a stake from his brother-in-law for a new show; his wife is pregnant; and now he thinks he's not the marrying type.
What? Everything about this version of Allen history certainly feels "second hand," meaning second time around, including this stab at revising an arc of memory. In fact, this is Allen's twelfth play script and it feels wrung from the life of eleven others. There aren't any jokes either. The father wraps himself in daydreams about his dysfunctional family. There's a nice metaphoric touch to the plot when it turns to the robbery of the family's safe, pretty much the only interesting event in the play. The father thinks it was an inside job, since the safe's combination is known only to himself and one son. So they're bankrupt, or the second generation is bankrupt due to carelessness in the first.
Even the family's individual failures' feel tired, like wearying bits of action or dialogue retrieved from the cutting room floor. Sadness at every turn. Yet it did not generate sympathy or even, heavens forfend, pity for these people. They are likeable, but not enough to create an outsider's interest in them; they are forbearing, but not forbearing enough to be cheerful in rough times; they are down, but not far enough down to be remarkable in that neighborhood; they probably are even historically accurate, but that surely matters less to a dramatized memoir than the emotional cause and effect drama worth its ticket.
By repute, Americans thrive on biography, especially on the most intimate events in celebrities' lives. Childhood, however, provides little or no settings for intimacy, which implies adulthood, and child stars chiefly interest their older selves and their parents. Allen used this trick of telling the boy's life through the man's eye in his film, Broadway Danny Rose. The narrators in his films usually suggest their maturity relative to the footloose, young man they describe. Annie Hall is another one such.
Allen geography has been well traversed over the past fifteen or so years and there is no new mine or memorial in this particular patch of ground. There have been good memory plays--by Arthur Miller, by Tennessee Williams, by Ibsen, and others, but they surveyed a rich past that we knew would flower in a due course. That is not the case here. Allen's past feels unremarkable when not thin, while the present is enacted sans plot, sans dramatic conflict, sans developed character, sans anything.
New York, November 30, 2004 - Nina daVinci Nichols