- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

The romantic and career entanglements of young, self-absorbed New Yorkers are the focus of Sam Forman’s hip, laugh-out-loud-funny musical comedy “The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall,” an homage to Woody Allen movies tweaked with references to Twitter and Facebook.

The world premiere opens this month at Theater J under the seasoned direction of Shirley Serotsky. Although it embraces trends and new technologies, “Annie Hall” doesn’t convey anything particularly new or insightful about relationships and the nuttiness of show business. The material, however, is presented in such a wildly entertaining way that you just shrug and say, “Whatever, dude.”

The story charts the quarter-life crisis of Henry Blume (Josh Lefkowitz), a writer for the theater who has yet to pull an “Avenue Q” and make it on Broadway. He and his collaborator, an amiable stoner named Will (Matthew A. Anderson), decide a musical version of “Annie Hall” will get their names up in lights.

Yet in order to secure the rights, Henry must cyberstalk the celebutante producer’s daughter (Maureen Rohn, smart and self-aware as a rich slacker). In a hilarious scene, he convinces her they are possible soul mates by parroting information gleaned from her Facebook profile. When she introduces him to his idol, theater wunderkind the Tortured Genius (Alexander Strain), Henry’s dreams are within his grasp. But first he must turn his back on his friend Will and his longtime girlfriend, Annie (the appealing Tessa Klein).

“Annie Hall” employs a loose, shoot-from-the-hip structure and irreverence suggestive of cable sitcoms. The show alternates between self-deprecating narration by Henry and scenes of his various triumphs and humiliations - also cleverly portrayed as film titles on a light-up marquee on the side of the stage - as he attempts to join New York’s elite.

The situations are pat, as are the characters: the excruciatingly enlightened impresario Tortured Genius, with his flowing Indian robes and smug mellowness; the loyal and long-suffering girlfriend; the snobby producer’s daughter. But Mr. Forman takes these conventions and gives them a fresh twist, especially in his tart and telling dialogue.

Sometimes, you wonder if “Annie Hall” is too insular, with its numerous fandom references to Mr. Allen’s films and modern theater allusions. (You had better know about Duncan Sheik, Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa, or you’ll be totally in the dark.)

Mr. Lefkowitz, a gifted monologist, probably could learn to share more with his fellow actors and resist the urge to ad-lib and employ scene-stealing tactics. Still, with his idiosyncratic delivery and self-conscious charm, he is one captivating nebbish. Mr. Strain is subtle and masterly as the Tortured Genius, and Mr. Anderson mines such infinite delights in the role of the pothead friend that he makes a strong case for legalization.

Like the iconic movie, this “Annie Hall” is an instant classic.

★★★½

WHAT: “The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall,” by Sam Forman

WHERE: Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through May 24

TICKETS: $30 to $55

PHONE: 202/777-3210

WEB SITE: www.theaterj.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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