THEATRE / Woody in Warsaw: Woody Allen's Play it Again, Sam has been playing again and again at the Studio Theatre in Warsaw. Rick Richardson finds out what's so funny

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The Independent Culture
PICTURE the scene: Warsaw 1986. Communism was looking like a show that would never end. Things were pretty grim. Yet something funny was about to happen in Stalin's Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, that architectural joke that closely resembles a truncated Empire State building planted in a huge wedding cake. A serious political statement was about to be made with the opening of a play by an American humorist, whose work had never been officially allowed in Poland. Woody Allen was coming to town.

At any rate a theatrical version of his film Play It Again, Sam was opening at the Studio Theatre, to become one of the most popular plays in Poland. Zagraj To Jeszcze Raz, Sam (literally: Play It One More Time) was the title chosen by director Adam Hanuszkiewicz for this 'subversive' production.

It was an experiment and the authorities were, apparently, not amused. But the play was allowed to go ahead: perhaps the officials hoped that seeing a slice of the frivolous life led by those unhinged, angst-crazed New Yorkers would, with any luck, strengthen the regime.

The individual coping with absurd situations like invasion, totalitarian government and the Soviet motor-car has a long tradition in Poland, so it is not too surprising that Sam has been in repertory at the Studio, a bastion of highbrow culture, for six years now.

The hapless Woody Allen character who learns how to get a girl and then nobly sacrifice her, aided by the ghost of Humphrey Bogart, was and is still played by Wojciech Malajkat, one of Poland's most famous young stage actors. This play, along vith his Hamlet, which for a while played on alternating nights, made him famous for playing characters driven to the end of their tether by ghosts and women.

They used make-up to make him look as much like Woody Allen as possible, but it hardly seems necessary as Malajkat encompasses all the requisite characteristics quite naturally. He is shy. He has trouble with women. He is afraid of interviewers.

'I'm a nervous neurotic kind of man,' he says. 'My friends tell me I remind them of Woody Allen. Anyhow, I have the right glasses.'

He is, then, probably as convincing as a Polish Woody Allen could be. And he still enjoys the experience: 'I love this play,' he says. 'There are lots of jokes and sight gags, but overall we play in a Polish style. I don't really like this type of American humour about psychiatrists. We have to find Polish references. We had to think about how to play American comedy in Stalin's building.'

That meant developing the absurdity of the situation: on one level there is the text, which is funny in itself, but on the second level an important important irony is at work. The Polish audience's amusement stems from the seriousness with which the American characters take their comparatively trivial problems - this still holds true as Poland suffers through the shock therapy of the market economy. The audience is led to feel superior - who needs shrinks when you've got vodka. They laughed at the 'Manhattan dummies', albeit affectionately. And, of course, there is a political irony in how anything so harmless as Woody Allen could be seen as a threat to the state.

One of the key Polish jokes of the play, which brought huge ovations, was a coup de theatre in which Woody Allen telephoned Malajkat during the play to ask him how it felt to be in his shoes. This was really considered to be the height of absurdity: in 1986 direct lines to the States did not exist (some people suggest they still don't). In another in-joke, someone from the American Embassy took the part of Allen's voice.

Wladyslaw Serwatowski, who helped produce the show and who now heads Artist's Management at the Studio Theatre, says: 'The play was pure nonsense to us: a joke about the hysterical consideration of psychiatry as a way of solving problems. Like a fetish. What we felt about Americans then was that they spent a lot of money on nothing. It's all part of the Ionesco aspect of life. The history of our nation makes such absurdities close to our hearts.'

By all accounts, the Polish style of humour is not too far away from the New York brand. Poles, like Americans, are fond of satire and self-analysis. But they just don't trust analysts, any more than they do politicians or religous leaders. As Bartek Bartoszek, managing editor of The Warsaw Voice, says: 'We like to build our humour based on our own weaknesses. We also have a strong tradition of Jewish humour. So, all in all, Woody Allen translates reasonably well. Benny Hill is popular too.

'Our humour also derives a great deal from German influences: slapstick, set-pieces, but not so vulgar. Perhaps our most important humorist since the war was the dissident poet, Slominski, who was known for his witticisms. We like to laugh. More importantly, we need to.'

At the end of the play the cast sings 'New York, New York' in front of a projected Manhattan skyline, the one so envied by Uncle Joe, and everyone joins in. It seems a fitting touch. 'We were happy,' says Malajkat, of the opening, 'because in a way we were in America - that forbidden country.' Serwatowski adds: 'Politics used to protect us - but having an open society might mean that soon we'll need psychiatrists.'

Perhaps in Poland, freedom is just another word for too many things to choose. The one enduring question for Polish society, as posed by this continuingly popular play, must be: is psychiatry too high a price to pay for freedom? Somebody ought to ask Woody Allen.