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If you go
What: “Play It Again, Sam”
Where: Arena Dinner Theatre, 719 Rockhill St.
When: 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. show; today, Saturday, Aug. 10, 11, 17 and 18
Admission: Tickets, at $35, are available by calling 424-5622.
Photos by Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Robert Scrimm, front, plays Allan Felix and Bill Craighead is Bogart in “Play It Again, Sam” at Arena Dinner Theatre.

Another take on 'Sam'

Woody Allen play moved to '97 in local theater's interpretation

Scrimm stars with Jennifer Poiry in the Woody Allen play, which focuses on a man obsessed with Humphrey Bogart. It runs Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 18.

When Woody Allen's comedy "Play It Again, Sam" debuted on Broadway in 1969, two things were true that aren't true today.

Allen wasn't particularly well known and Humphrey Bogart was still a lot of people's notion of a masculine ideal to which every man should aspire.

A three-weekend run of "Play It Again, Sam" opens today at Arena Dinner Theatre.

Bogart impersonations were still a part of many comedians' repertoires in the '60s and '70s, whereas today an impressionist might get more mileage out of imitating Allen.

Times have changed, in other words.

The play's protagonist, Allan Felix, is a hapless young man who navigates difficult situations in life by imagining that he is talking to, and sometimes channeling the supposed essence of, Bogart.

Aaron Jacob Ahrndt, the director of the Arena version, admits he did not know much about Bogart when he agreed to helm the play.

Ahrndt, 24, has since brushed up on Bogie, but he says the play has less to do with the archetypal tough guy than the universal theme of a man who tries to be something he is not.

"Because of my age, I wasn't exposed to Bogart quite so much," he says. "I am far more interested in Allan's interpretation of Bogart.

"This play is far more about the Bogart in Allan's mind than the real Bogart," Ahrndt says.

Partly because Ahrndt wanted to dull Bogart's influence in the play's milieu, he shifted the time period from the late '60s to 1997.

This makes Felix's obsession with Bogart seem a bit more eccentric.

"We all know people who were born in the wrong era," Ahrndt says. "Allan doesn't act like most of the other people he knows in 1997."

"That definitely reinforces the feeling that he's not quite of his time period," says Robert Scrimm, who assays the role of Allan Felix. "He uses phrases that he refuses to let go of, like 'discothèque,' that have fallen out of common usage."

Some theatergoers may not know much about Bogart, Ahrndt says, but they probably know someone who tries to overcome feelings of inadequacy by taking on a persona.

"They just kind of flounder around," Ahrndt says of such people. "This is totally the case with Allan. When you're yourself, when you're not trying to emulate something in the media, you find friends who actually like being around you."

One of the challenges for a contemporary actor in portraying a male Woody Allen protagonist is deciding whether to evoke Allen or avoid evoking him.

All of Allen's anti-heroes are not only cut from the same cloth, they seem to have been hatched from the same egg.

Scrimm says evoking Allen is unavoidable and trying not to evoke him may be counterproductive.

"He slips out regardless of whether you are trying to let him slip out or not," he says.

Scrimm says he may have thrown a little Jimmy Stewart stammer into the mix as well, although not necessarily with premeditation.

Scrimm agrees with Ahrndt that the play's Bogart has very little to do with the real Bogart.

"The real Bogart might say, 'No, don't do that. That only works in the movies,' " he says.

Felix, a character that embodied the phrase "too much information" long before TMI became a texting acronym, works equally well in the '60s and the '90s, Scrimm says.

"He can't help but let out all the things that everybody else keeps to themselves," he says.

Scrimm says he wasn't the first actor cast as Felix, which means his preparation process was truncated.

Like a lot of Allen's shows, "Play It Again, Sam" is word-drunk and breakneck.

This has made the task at hand especially challenging for the time-crunched Scrimm.

"There are so many teeny, tiny, rapid-fire moments – boom, boom, boom – and that gets tricky," he says.