In the opening lines of Woody Allen’s new play, “A Second Hand Memory,” a character who describes herself as the teller of the tale, the poetess, confesses she has dramatized the events we’re about to see with a heavy hand. If only. Some pumped-up poetry might have breathed a little life into this stale account of a troubled 1950s Brooklyn family. Trading in the familiar stock of men trapped in wrong marriages and seeking to escape via other women, the hackneyed drama evaporates from memory almost as it’s unfolding with a curious lack of weight or conviction.
Even by the undistinguished standards of Allen’s recent films, this is a pallid effort. In pics such as “Hannah and Her Sisters” in 1986 or, more recently, 1992’s “Husbands and Wives,” the writer-director once brought delicate insights and crackling dialogue to his studies of marital strain, family life, failed relationships and the philandering impulse. It’s depressing to reflect that Allen has continued, with the regularity of a conveyor belt, to recycle flimsy treatments of the same subjects despite having nothing new to add.
Opting here for more sober drama without the usual diet of one-liners and urbane neurotica, Allen attempts to disguise a tired scenario with a fussy and poorly crafted time-shuffling structure and with the use of black-sheep daughter Alma (Elizabeth Marvel) as a wry narrator, slipping in and out of her family’s dreams to comment and offer instruction on their plight.
Her ailing father, Lou (Dominic Chianese), has been swindled out of his life savings and all but lost his jewelry business, forcing him to move, with wife Fay (Beth Fowler), out of their family home into a cramped apartment. Poisoned by bitterness and anger, Lou blames Fay for giving their son Eddie (Nicky Katt) an exit from the business by sending him out West to work with his uncle Phil (Michael McKean), a successful Hollywood agent.
As the plot slots into place, it emerges that Eddie has fallen in love with Phil’s secretary, Diane (Erica Leerhsen), unaware she’s having an affair with the boss. When that rude awakening occurs, Eddie retreats hastily to Brooklyn to help bail out his father, falling into a loveless rebound marriage with Bea (Kate Blumberg), who soon announces a baby’s on the way.
While Eddie continues to look for avenues of escape from a career, a mortgage and a marriage he doesn’t want, a glimpse into Lou’s past reveals his own indiscretions and uncovers the source of his grudge against Phil.
Especially in the early action, when much of the drama revolves around him, Chianese seems uncertain in his role, playing Lou with the same mix of belligerence, doddery confusion and stubborn pride he brings to Uncle Junior on “The Sopranos.” But while it works for that character, alternating between comic relief, malevolence and melancholy, here thesp comes across as unsympathetic and underprepared.
Despite some turgid dialogue about the thunderclap of dreams colliding, Fowler creates the most full-bodied character out of Lou’s long-suffering wife, remaining poignantly loyal to a man who’s never loved her. McKean brings his customary humor to the walking cliche of a slick Hollywood shark, though he’s unable to lend sincerity to an out-of-character turnabout when self-absorbed Phil opens up to Eddie.
In a dismal segue from her stunning work this season in “Hedda Gabler,” Marvel is stuck trying to animate an artificial construct, a boozing, promiscuous drifter collecting life experience for her future as a writer and trying in vain to compensate for the love her father denied her.
Marvel at least retains her dignity, however, while the other young cast members range from ineffectual to inept. Like so many thesps in Allen’s movies, Katt is reduced to stiffly impersonating the actor-director’s mannerisms. Blumberg can do little with a thankless part, while Leerhsen (a dead ringer for Elizabeth Berkley in both looks and acting range) is equally wooden as a sweet secretary and superficial, nouveau-riche Hollywood wife.
None of the actors is helped by Allen’s unrefined skills as a stage director, the poorly planned blocking often leaving them awkwardly stranded around Santo Loquasto’s functionally traditional, multi-location set.