I won’t have what they’re having: That’s likely to be a common response to the anemic stage premiere of “When Harry Met Sally,” which has arrived in London — original home to the equally superfluous stage transcription of “The Graduate” — in order to trade on the seemingly ceaseless appetite for seeing celluloid icons in the flesh (though not, on this occasion anyway, in the nude).
Alyson Hannigan and Luke Perry are pleasant personalities and fine stage technicians (she more than he), despite their lack of live experience. But to ask them to vie with the memories of Meg Ryan and, especially, Billy Crystal (in his best screen perf), is about as absurd as representing Manhattan by the faceless, antiseptic rectangular box that passes for designer Ultz’s set.
The design, however, is the least of the problems in scribe Marcy Kahan’s theatrical replication (adaptation hardly seems the word) of Nora Ephron’s screenplay about the long, slow road to romance across a dozen-plus years of Harry (Perry) and Sally (Hannigan). Harry, you see, loves sex and likes to boast of his prowess at it, but he shies away from the real commitment — the desire to make love — that defines the perky, fastidious Sally.
As Shakespeare often made clear in his comedies, sparring can be the most logical precursor to passion, and there’s a genial amiability about the arc of a narrative that lands where any onlooker could have anticipated from the start: with Harry and Sally locked in a decisive, lasting clinch. (Although that embrace, in director Loveday Ingram’s maladroit handling of it, is so far from celebratory that the audience seemed confused as to whether to applaud.)
The two have jobs, sort of: She as a journalist, he as a corporate lawyer who may not be quite sharkish enough for that milieu. And yet their careers are nothing when set against the parry-and-thrust of opposites who, in time-honored fashion, must eventually attract. What drives Harry to distraction about Sally — At a restaurant, must she always order everything on the side? — is what ultimately endears her to him, even if their friends, Jack (Jake Broder) and Marie (Sharon Small), turn out, amusingly, to be far quicker off the amorous mark.
The movie is arguably the most Woody Allenish of films not to have anything to do with the Woodman and, watching it again, one is struck by the pathos that Crystal brings to the wisecracking yet emotionally cautious Harry. Perry looks great — indeed, he’s almost too much the heartthrob for the lines he’s been given — but he’s in no way right for the role. More your standard-issue jock, his Harry hardly seems the type to indulge heated debates about “Casablanca” and karaoke renditions of songs from “Oklahoma!” It’s odd, too, to hear the Jewish zing of the repartee quite so de-ethnicized, which in turn has the effect of making it seem as if Perry knows the words but can’t land the rhythmic cadences of them.
Hannigan’s response to a similar problem is mostly to speak louder: For a first-time theater practitioner (Perry at least did a Broadway stand in the “Rocky Horror” revival), she has no trouble reaching the back wall of the Theater Royal, Haymarket. The odd result, however, is to make the opening half-hour or so sound as if the two stars are acting at totally different volumes: You want to turn one up even or turn the other one down. (The discrepancy eased up after the intermission.) But playing a woman who worries that she will be “40, someday,” Hannigan tends to be hard-edged and slightly shrill where Meg Ryan was famously dizzy and warm.
Small wonder that before long, one’s attentions have shifted to the tale’s secondary couple, with the portly, effortlessly funny Broder suggesting himself as a natural Harry. Except, of course, that he isn’t a big name.
Spectators may enjoy making direct comparisons of the screen and stage scripts: the way the movie’s opening car ride from Chicago to New York, for instance, has been eliminated in favor of a starting gambit in which Harry arrives to paint the apartment of new Manhattanite Sally, whose sensitivities toward urban living lead to a neat gag about the multiple locks on her front door. Many of Ephron’s best lines remain intact: An apt riff on the time that could be saved if real estate ads were combined with obits (Perry doesn’t mine that one for anywhere near its full value), or a delicious exchange about Charlie Chaplin becoming a parent in his 70s.
Oddly, the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” moment — delivered with movie-stealing gusto onscreen by director Rob Reiner’s mother — is here given to a swishy male reveler seated near Harry and Sally. The entire restaurant scene, Hannigan’s impressive orgasmic moaning notwithstanding, is so fussily staged that its, uh, climactic line is all but lost.
The “how we met” film sequences, meanwhile, have been updated for the 21st century: There’s a gay couple who tell of meeting during “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Met and a black couple who fell in love at 12. At the very end, Harry and Sally take to the screen to recount their tale, though I did notice that, on opening night anyway, the aisle-sitting critics weren’t the only ones who had already left.