Once upon a time it was a sacred ritual: the annual pilgrimage to see the new Woody Allen movie. The full-page ad would appear in the Sunday New York Times with nothing more than the title and the list of stars. The following Friday, long lines of hard-core devotees would appear in front of the Coronet or the Baronet — the bygone flagships of the Upper East Side movie-theater district — because the highest joy of joys would be to see the latest chapter of Woody’s comic epic saga of New York Jewish life on the day it opened. (A close second would be knowing a movie critic and getting to see it in advance at the Broadway Screening Room, the plushest spot in town.) From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, the faithful observed this ritual religiously. The rewards sometimes were classic cinematic feasts (“Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors”), sometimes thin soup (“A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” “Alice,” “Shadows and Fog”). No matter. Attendance required.
Then… the fall from grace, the messy breakup with Mia Farrow over his affair with her adopted daughter (now his wife) Soon-Yi Previn, the ugly allegations of child abuse. Not to mention the changes in the movie business. Woody still makes a movie once a year, like clockwork. But the faithful are more likely to stay home with HBO and Netflix, because since “Bullets Over Broadway” he hasn’t been giving them much to go on. Okay, Mira Sorvino won an Academy Award as the potty-mouthed star of “Mighty Aphrodite” (1995), and Sean Penn channeled Django Reinhardt into an Oscar nomination for “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999). But did anybody actually see “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion”? “Hollywood Ending”? “Anything Else”?
Every so often, Allen writes a play, and what’s remarkable about his plays is that they portray a universe in which his movies don’t exist. Hollywood, Calif., figures heavily in “A Second Hand Memory,” which just opened off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company, but it’s Hollywood of the early 1950s viewed as an Oz-like paradise from a tenement apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. That’s where Eddie Wolfe (Nicky Katt) grows up torn between the dreams of his parents. Lou (Dominic Chianese) wants Eddie to share and then take over his jewelry business; Fay (Beth Fowler) wants him to live out her own fantasy of making it in Hollywood, like her brother Phil Wellman (Michael McKean), a high-powered show-biz agent. Eddie tries on both of them for size — as well as The American Dream of getting married, having a child and buying a house in the suburbs — but none of them fits. He gets his heart set on real-estate speculation in Florida, no matter whose dreams get destroyed along the way. All this we learn from Eddie’s older sister, Alma (Elizabeth Marvel), who narrates the play as she drifts across Europe, seeking from strangers the love she didn’t get from her father, although she calls it “accumulating experience,” which she hopes to transmute into poetry one day.
The play’s title refers to this family drama as “second hand” because Alma hears about Eddie’s debacle from afar, through postcards and letters. But the audience will find its own reasons for labeling the merchandise “previously worn.” The down-on-his-luck sourpuss businessman, the self-sacrificing wife he cheats on, and the son whose love he vainly tries to win tell us we’re in “Death of a Salesman” territory. The narrator who steps into and out of the action smacks of “The Glass Menagerie.” The Hollywood bigwig on whom an entire family pins its hopes takes a page from John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves.” And if somebody mentioned “pipe dreams” just one more time, Eugene O’Neill’s estate could sue for a cut of the royalties.
It’s hard to know what we’d make of a play like this if we didn’t bring to it the expectations of comic invention, sweeping romance, Noo Yawk toughness and exaggerated neurosis as philosophical discourse that we associate with Allen’s movies. If this were a novice playwright, perhaps we’d overlook the heavy borrowings and give him credit for small touches. Like calling the Wolfes’ apartment building the Excelsior, a tony-sounding name that also refers to shredded debris used as packing materials. That’s pretty much what these deep-in-debt Brooklynites feel like when Phil Wellman breezes in with stories about giving expensive gifts to movie stars who don’t need them, or dropping $8,000 in a card game. We know it’s a Jewish family not because the author hits us over the head with Yiddish expressions, but because the business talk is so blasé — Lou and Eddie discuss the jewels they sell as if they were curtain rods — and because Phil pretends not to know what a Seder is. The most assimilated Jew in the family, he refers to stuffed cabbage as an “ethnic” dish.
Whatever mastery Allen lacks as a playwright, he makes up for here as a director. For one thing, he’s able to get really good actors to take a three-month gig off-Broadway for chump change. And together they transform what could be a bunch of tired stock characters into finely drawn performances. Fresh from her gutsy spin on Hedda Gabler, Elizabeth Marvel registers the right mix of irony and ludicrousness with her stereotypical beatnik ponytail, black turtleneck and rolled-up dungarees. Without carbon-copying what he does as Uncle Junior on “The Sopranos,” Dominic Chianese manages a similar trick of making sure we don’t like him but we don’t dismiss him either.
Nicky Katt has the hardest role to play, partly because he’s the one to whom the play happens and he doesn’t have much to do. Also, his character is closest to the author autobiographically, so he’s damned if he plays Allen and damned if he doesn’t. His solution is to play the hero as a character role so that the audience has the mixed pleasure of watching a handsome, sharp young actor shape himself into a slump-shouldered deluded loser.
Erica Leerhsen is a revelation as Diane, the secretary who morphs from red-diaper baby to Bel Air, Calif., matron. But Michael McKean steals the show. As Phil Wellman, the Hollywood agent, he dodges clichés faster than a cartoon samurai ducks daggers, truthfully playing shrewd, phony, loyal, vulnerable and loving as the moment demands. It’s a spectacular performance that other actors might study and emulate profitably.
Don Shewey is the author of the biography “Sam Shepard” and has written about theater for The New York Times, The Village Voice and other publications.