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Manhattan Stories

An ensemble of improvisers expertly captures the essence of Woody Allen's comedy

Reviewed by Jillian Owens, Fri., Aug. 17, 2012

Woody's world: <i>Manhattan Stories</i> director Jon Bolden as the filmmaker, backed by members of the cast
Woody's world: Manhattan Stories director Jon Bolden as the filmmaker, backed by members of the cast

Manhattan Stories

The Hideout Theatre, 617 Congress, 443-3688
www.hideouttheatre.com
Through Aug. 25
Running time: 1 hr., 10 min.

When it comes to the movie quotes segment of pub quizzes, I'm about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. Compared to live theatre's thrilling, nervous energy and potential for spontaneous triumph or failure, movies have always seemed dull and rigid to me. But for some inexplicable reason, I have a deep, abiding love for Woody Allen films. Allen's self-deprecating quips, hand-wringing obsession with death, and ponderings about the nature of his dirty socks – it's all so pithy. It has great ... pith.

As the Hideout's talented improvisers prove in Manhattan Stories, their homage to Allen's 40 cinematic years of "mediocre humor," perhaps Allen's work has such a hold on my heart because his pith translates so well to the stage. And here directors Jon Bolden and Valerie Ward transform the Hideout's bitty upstairs theatre into a Woody wonderland.

The evening started just right, with jazz music featuring plenty of clarinet solos and a montage of film clips that had us laughing before the show began (my favorite: the cellist in the marching band from Take the Money and Run). A gray-scale rendering of that iconic Queensboro Bridge shot from Manhattan served as backdrop for Bolden, who introduced the show as the filmmaker himself, wearing black-rimmed glasses and khakis cropped an inch too short. In a twist on typical improv suggestion fishing, he asked an audience member what she did when she visited Manhattan; mercifully, she answered, "We went to the theatre." Bolton smiled, perhaps imagining the meta possibilities that lay ahead, and ran his hand through his hair, saying, "Y'know, theatre is alive. It reaches a deep part of me."

At that, the ensemble of 10 embarked on a madcap Broadway adventure that expertly captured the essence of Allen's comedy. Sharp-witted Troy Miller created a neurotic playwright whose lead ingénue, the Diane Keaton-like Lisa Jackson, made a pact with Lucifer (hilarious improv newbie Andy Buck) to become the greatest actress in the city. In an ironic twist, the devil confessed to his psychotherapist (who else?) that he'd fallen in love with the actress. Hilarity ensued.

Despite a slight lull in the plot three-quarters of the way through, the cast created a compelling long-form narrative that incorporated everything Allen: sex, death, God, internal monologues, witty one-liners, fear of inadequacy, existential crises – it was all there and all dripping in Manhattan. As Allen's character Isaac says in that film, "Talent is luck. The important thing in life is courage." Fortunately for Austin, the ensemble of Manhattan Stories is both lucky and courageous.

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