Few figures in the history of American cinema excite either the reverence or the controversy of Woody Allen, and even fewer periods in the prolific writer/director’s career pack the intensity of 1992, the year in which Allen left Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn and the year in which he released his final of 13 films with Farrow, the great and underrated comedy/drama Husbands and Wives. Although he enjoyed considerable success on Broadway early in his career with two plays, Don’t Drink the Water (1966) and Play It Again, Sam (1969), Allen has, until now, resisted allowing his cinematic oeuvre to be adapted for the English-speaking theater. With the exception of the 2014 musical Bullets over Broadway, which Allen adapted himself, there has never been an American production of a stage play based on a Woody Allen film.
That’s about to change. Next week at the New Vic in Santa Barbara, Ensemble Theatre Company Artistic Director Jonathan Fox will present the world premiere of his original adaptation of Husbands and Wives. Allen’s production company, including his manager, will be flying to town to witness what all involved hope will be a major breakthrough both for Ensemble and for Allen’s extraordinary body of work, which, with its intricate structures, deft comic dialogue, and outstanding control of character development, could become a gold mine for theater for many decades to come.
How did it end up happening here? The answer has a lot to do with Fox’s commitment to presenting an entire season of new work for 2017-18. Determined to open the year with something that was both well known and a world premiere, he negotiated hard with Allen’s team to win the rights to the property. Among their demands were that the adaptation be completely new and involve some kind of structural equivalents to the documentary-style inserts and handheld camera techniques that Italian cinematographer Carlo Di Palma used in the film. Fox not only took on the task of writing the stage adaptation himself, but he also conceived of a daring device for including the crucial monologues that are spoken directly to the camera by the characters. “I wanted to acknowledge that the action was taking place onstage,” Fox told me. When Allen shot the original film, he lit the whole soundstage so that the actors could see the crew. In Fox’s adaptation, a camera operator will be present onstage, moving among the actors to capture close-ups that will appear in real time on large screens that the audience will be able to see alongside the live action.
For those who need reminding, or who have never seen Husbands and Wives, it’s one of Allen’s best and most daring works. He plays Gabe, a writer/professor whose marriage to Judy (Farrow) is falling apart, although at the beginning of the film they don’t quite know that yet. Judy Davis, who plays Sally, the wife of their good friend Jack (Sydney Pollack), was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actress for her performance, and Allen was nominated for best original screenplay. Two relative newcomers at the time, Liam Neeson and Juliette Lewis, also turned in outstanding performances in supporting roles, and critics praised the whole thing for its virtuosic four-way characterization. Given the intimate size and dazzling technical resources of the New Vic, audiences are likely in for a wild ride with this world-premiere production. And who knows? This may be the start of yet another chapter for the 81-year-old Allen, who has among the deepest catalogs of any living American writer.
Husbands and Wives previews on October 5-7, opens officially on October 7, and runs through October 22 at Ensemble’s New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.). For tickets and information, call (805) 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.