Don't Drink the Water/Play It Again, Sam | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Don't Drink the Water/Play It Again, Sam


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Don't Drink the Water, Noble Fool Theater Company, and Play It Again, Sam, Caught in the Act Productions, at Prop Thtr. When Woody Allen's Don't Drink the Water first opened on Broadway in November 1966, he was known mostly as a stand-up comedian and television writer. And boy do his TV roots show here. The characters are stereotypes, and the premise is pure sitcom: loudmouth Americans on vacation behind the iron curtain are falsely accused of spying and flee to the protection of a mismanaged American embassy. At best half the gags feel organic, and the rest--like the scene in which a bomb is tossed through the window and everyone passes it around hysterically--feel like variations on time-honored jokes.

Nevertheless the show is entertaining. And thanks to Jimmy Binns's graceful direction and his terrific cast of comic actors, the Noble Fool revival is much funnier than it might have been. Lynda Shadrake and Paul Connell are great as the ugly Americans, and Megan Chavez is a hoot as their oversexed daughter. But the show really belongs to the characters who keep the embassy going (barely), led by Jesse Weaver as the ambassador's ne'er-do-well son.

Allen's other Broadway hit, Play It Again, Sam, opened only two years after Don't Drink the Water, but the difference between the two is remarkable. Where the older play often feels forced, Play It Again, Sam unfolds as naturally as a patient's tale to a trusted therapist. Warm, witty, and self-effacing, the play--like Allen's best films of the 60s and 70s--seems to traffic in autobiographical material. The work is strong enough to withstand an uneven production like this one by the newly formed Caught in the Act Productions. For every actor like Daniel Grillo, who captures the emotional truth behind the character Allen himself played on Broadway and in the 1972 film, there's another like Carrie Johnson, who crushes comic moments with her overacting, comedic cliches, and telegraphing of every punch line.Jack Helbig

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