A Second Hand Memory, Atlantic Theater, New York, USA

4.00

Woody Allen has "written and directed many films over the last 35 years and has occasionally worked in the theater". That's the man's typically self-deprecating entry in the Atlantic Theater Company's programme notes.

Woody Allen has "written and directed many films over the last 35 years and has occasionally worked in the theater". That's the man's typically self-deprecating entry in the Atlantic Theater Company's programme notes.

The opening run of A Second Hand Memory was directed by Allen himself. The off-Broadway Atlantic is a homely, intimate space, its smallish audience made up of the same demographic that usually crops up in Allen's movies.

The company, co-founded 16 years ago by David Mamet and William H Macy, remains committed to a concentrated interpretation of each work, simply presented and faithful to the writer's intentions. The ATC has already produced Allen's Writer's Block.

Allen sets A Second Hand Memory in Fifties Brooklyn, attempting to produce an archetypal piece that could indeed have been written in that decade, or the Sixties. The work is remarkable for having no single character who is visibly the author's mouthpiece. It can't even be said that the play's collective voice rings with the now-familiar tone of Allen's neurotic observer persona. It's as if the author is aiming at a classic text that will have an endless life.

The boozy would-be writer Alma Wolfe (Elizabeth Marvel) acts as omnipresent narrator, directly addressing both audience and characters as she introduces her troubled family. Her father Lou Wolfe (an enthusiastically tense Dominic Chianese) is about to be shafted by his business partners, and is barely calmed down by his spouse, Fay. The twinkle-eyed Alma has long fled the nest, bed-hopping around Europe as she collects material for her novel. Lou is putting pressure on his fresh-faced son Eddie to fly back from Hollywood, as the family gradually implodes.

Allen weaves flashbacks into the play's shifting reality, with Alma freely commenting on the action, halting her family's thought-flow. Eddie enters a doomed relationship with Diane, secretary of a Hollywood agent, Phil Wellman, (played so well by Michael McKean that we truly believe in his sliminess).

The set is an opened-out space, with bedrooms raised up on each side, lights selecting each "room" to follow the action. Wellman's Hollywood office is suggested by two illuminated desks, to the far left and right. The characters frequently parade across the floor in front of the stage, expanding or contracting the space to suit each scene. Allen begins to set up a series of resonances between past and present romantic failures and business collapses, suggesting that families are doomed to repeat their mistakes down the generations.

There are plenty of laughs, but they're of the muffled, near-hysterical kind. This is a farcical family tale that veers into bitter darkness. Allen has created the trappings of an old-time drama, but subverted its situations with a modern bleakness.

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