Hall of Fame

Fresh on the heels of its first Helen Hayes Award, it would appear that Theater J has another winning show on its hands

by Tom Avila
Published on April 23, 2009, 12:00am | Comments

It's amazing what people will post online.

Leave aside the conversations people will have, loudly, on their cell phones while walking down the street or riding the train home (''I'm on the train...''). Forget about the level of trust afforded to a tiny logo and the phrase ''secure server'' as we hand social security and credit-card numbers over like they were the address of a favorite deli.

Think Facebook. Think Twitter. Think of all the random comments and photos posted for the world to see without so much as a second thought.

How much could a perfect stranger learn about you with just a few minutes on your Facebook page? Enough to convince you that you had a friend in common? That you were alumni of the same school? That you hate your job and were only pretending to be sick last Thursday?

How solid is that electronic trail to your front door?

'Annie Hall' ad Theater J
'Rise and Fall of Annie Hall' at Theater J

The social-information age that is laying siege to some of the great devices of the creative class -- hard to have a missed connection when you're Tweeting your whereabouts ever 20 minutes -- is put to very good use in Sam Forman's play, The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall. Now onstage at Theater J, this world premiere is a bright and witty show that mixes new media and neuroses with fantastic results.

Our narrator for the evening is Henry (Josh Lefkowitz), a struggling young librettist who has struck on an idea. He and his writing partner will do a musical version of Annie Hall. All they need are the rights to the material and nothing can stop them. After all, while at Northwestern they turned The Seagull into the well-received musical Birds of a Feather.

With a few clicks Henry finds that the daughter of Woody Allen's producer, known to us as Producer's Daughter (Maureen Rohn), works in a gallery downtown. Armed with a few Facebook-mined facts, he quickly convinces her that they share a strange and deep connection.

He also learns that world-renowned and painfully arty composer Tortured Genius (Alexander Strain) is already doing a musical of Annie Hall.

Of course, he still needs someone to write the book.

That's the set-up. Throw in a relationship with a struggling actress and make the writing companion a good-natured stoner and it's a romantic comedy that feels timely without trying too hard to be hip.

And that might be what makes Rise and Fall so successful. There's something refreshing about the straightforward nature of its storytelling. The play is not trying to be anything bigger than its own stage. It's not trying to teach some universal life lesson. It's a smart, solid and impeccably constructed play about a very particular incident involving a small collection of people who do not change the world.

They just live.

Bringing this collection of New York artists brilliantly to life is an ensemble cast that is sheer joy to watch.

Strain's Tortured Genius is frighteningly familiar. You've seen him speaking seriously to Arts Section interviewers about his ''process,'' heard him confessing dark family secrets on NPR and watched the name-dropping profile piece on A&E. Strain gives us an artist who is painfully self-absorbed and brutally self-assured. It's good fun.

Matthew A. Anderson, who plays Henry's writing partner Will, and Rohn turn in the evening's surprise performances because little would seem expected from their characters. Will is constantly stoned and the Producer's Daughter is caught in a constant volley between bored and lost. Both actors bring their roles a warmth and good humor that make their characters utterly endearing.

The same can be said of Henry's girlfriend Annie (Tessa Klein). Yes, she's actually named Annie, but there are no ties or floppy hats involved. Klein's Annie is something of a mystery, the character with the least number of cards showing. Klein works carefully and with great determination and turns this question mark into a great performance.

THE RISE AND FALL OF ANNIE HALL
starstarstarstarstar
To May 24
Theater J
1529 16th St. NW
$30-$55
202-777-3210
www.theaterj.org

But, as wonderful as this cast is and as beautifully as they work together, in so many ways this play belongs to Lefkowitz. Funny and casual and in complete command of both his character and the stage, Lefkowitz is the kind of actor who puts an audience completely at ease. His timing is flawless and his complete embrace of Forman's skillful writing is clear.

Fresh on the heels of its first Helen Hayes Award, it would appear that Theater J has another winning show on its hands. The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall is a romantic comedy about the social networking set. And you don't even have to know about Twitter to enjoy it.