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Taken from "Hello" Nr. 803, 17.02.2004
The following text is a somewhat expanded and slightly altered version of a review which was printed in the February 13th edition of "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" in German. It’s about A.H.‘s debut as a stage actress in the role of Sally in Marcy Kahan’s theatrical version of Nora Ephrons "When Harry met Sally" at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London, co-starring Luke Perry as Harry. As with the Amber Benson stuff elsewhere on this site, I translated it myself and hope it’s readable & you enjoy it

In the year 1989 a quirky and smart screenplay by Nora Ephron allowed director Rob Reiner to guide Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal towards delivering some of the best lines these two actors ever got to speak. "When Harry Met Sally" was quite a good motion picture for many reasons, not the least of which seems to be – at least in retrospect – that it made fun of two of the most common misconceptions concerning love and/or sex that were passed around in the wake of the "sexual liberation" of the 1970s. The first of these two charmingly idealistic, but ultimately unworkable ideas which can be summed up as "love exists to conquer the system" was corrected in the course of Reiner‘s comedy by a crafty tongue-in-cheek-presentation of the ways in which people who actually profit from said system – by not being forced to worry over basic necessities of life too much, for example – namely, two innocently self-centred Yuppies as only the Eighties could have created, may sometimes be granted by a benevolent goddess of erotic mischief, the unlikely ability – not to mention the time – to enact complicated ballet-exercises of love, attraction, withdrawal and so forth for our enjoyment. Enjoying that might have been a guilty pleasure for us enlightened liberals, but an instructive one nonetheless.
The other weak post-68-idea which Reiner’s film subverted was the kitschy radical slogan that "private lives of any kind are a bourgeois diversion and shall be smashed by the righteous fury of the politically minded". For if you but watched these two deliciously confused products of corporate America carefully enough, you had to admit that their fuzzy decadence was something that should not be lost or discarded, but rather preserved by an utopian, even a post-revolutionary society: let’s never give up the games people play.
Fiften years and countless pamphlets by kind-hearted sociologists of sex later, stage director Loveday (sic!) Ingram now presents a stage version of "When Harry Met Saly" at London’s Haymarket Theatre (that’s one of those "West End"-venues one reads & hears about so much). Marcy Kahan, the Canadian-American playwright who adapted Ephron’s original screenplay for this production, managed to get everything right that Ephron herself somehow failed to recapture in most of her other similar efforts following "When Harry Met Sally", from the long-winded "Sleepless in Seattle" up to the feeble "You’ve got mail".
Kahan’s version showcases all of the original’s strenghts while discovering some new ones only visible today: everything she preserves or inserts is historically precise and emotionally true, the time is shifted from the space between the seventies and the eighties to the one between the eighties and the new millennium, the right TV-Shows are mentioned ("West Wing", "Jerry Springer") and Harry’s Ex-wife gets to spout pseudo-hipster-jargon cut from original nineties fabric, remarking about a restaurant: "it’s so retro, it’s avant-garde".
Even those endearing video-inserts of longtime companions telling their tales of true love and commitment get recontextualized: This time around, they feature a harmlessly middle-class gay couple as well and were made by Sally’s friend Marie who is now a video artist instead of a storefront-decorator. On top of that, they get dissed for being "schmaltzy" by the ever-sarcastic Harry. Speaking of Harry, whom you might remember as an eloquent, misanthropic pessimist obsessed with doom and thanatopsis in Crystal’s quite fetching interpretation: here he‘s not so much a timeless existentialist but rather a boyish, yet at times amusingly savage social heretic – you’d have to be pretty grumpy not to enjoy watching Luke Perry spitting out words like „über-ruthless“ , "fascists" and "corporate yuppies".
Kahan knows her characters – and what’s more, she’s quite aware of the necessities of form such a reworking of already well-done material entails. On the characters, she writes in her short commentary: "What they find is each other, but since Harry is a depressive, domineering sexual opportunist and Sally a perky, romantic obessive compulsive (I‘m exaggerating ever so slightly), they don’t hit it off."
On the form of the play, Kahan has this to say: "A funny thing happened on the way to the end of the first draft. I discovered that ‚When Harry Met Sally‘, deep down in ist deepest impulses, is really a stage play. This has to do with the differences between plays and movies. As the playwight Christopher Hampton once defined it, a theatre play dramatises ‚the slow unfurling of a tightly knit argument‘, powered by thetoric, while a screenplay relies on the eloquence of ist images."
As it was with Ephorn and Reiner, the very best thing about a solidly planned textual fundament for any dramatic presentation is that it allows the actors to show their stuff as best they can. And these actors fully deliver here.
Roughly half of the people present at the preview I’ve seen could be (or actually are) familiar with Alyson Hannigan by way of her former roles as Willow on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and Michelle in the hugely succesful "American Pie" films – you can tell because of their age, their T-Shirts (one woman has a lovely embossed Buffy-Shirt that’s probably homemade, I’ve never seen it before anywhere and believe me, I‘ve seen and worn plenty of Buffywear), their fannish demeanor (I mean that in a good way since I’m in no position to throw the first stone) and their comments during intermission time. Hannigan as reportedly never stood on a stage before, but she captures the mood and uses the pssoibilities as I‘ve she’s been itching to try this one for a while. The voice carries, the gestures beckon, the first clumsy New-Year’s-kiss between our two star-crossed yuppies is placed by this incarnation of Sally’s with impeccable awkwardness and the famous fake orgasm-scene gets a deservedly sustained rung of applause (by the way, it’s also followed by one of Kahan‘s nice little upgrading touches: the person who says "I’ll have what she’s having" is not, as in the movie, a middle-aged woman, but rather a good-looking young man).
Hannigan plays it slightly more controlled than Ryan did, her kind of cute is a bit more cerebral, sweet & sour instead of sweet & uptight. Some tell-tale little tics and accidental parallels connect this role with other’s she’s played, the adorable little "Och"-sigh when she’s exasperated is there, and when the Buffy-crowd detects an Apple-computer onstage, we naturally think of our favourite technopagan wicca, even the way she wrinkles her nose or slings a sheet around her body (don‘t get me started on "Seeing Red") suggest a scent of déjà-vu, but that’s full-blown Buffymania for you. Be that as it may, Hannigan’s interpretation of what it means to be a latter-day-Sally is especially delightful in that it seems to wrily comment on the fate of such roles since 1989 – this Sally has clearly seen some romantic comedies herself and wears this sense of romantic-comedy-erudition like her too-big-aerobic-T-Shirt and green stretch pants in a newly inserted workout scene – even when her tongue slips, it tends to make sense: once, she declares that she’s just arrived in L.A. instead of New York, and of course that’s just as possible for this new Sally, Nineties-wise, as does showing us the different ways of sitting on a sofa (when you’re Sally and someone you just met is shamelessly hitting on you, you don’t sit there like you do with your best female friend, discussing each other’s love-lives).
Hannigan’s fans, judging from my own reactions and from what I‘ ve heard others say during the intermission, are thus completely satisified and pleased, as was to be expected.
Compared to this – for people like me, the evening‘s main attraction – the very capable supporting cast members, especially Sharon Small as Marie and Jake Broder as Harry’s best friend Jack – the movie introduced him as Jess – are merely very competent and admirably restrained, they serve the whole thing well by being anything but movie-actors, absolutely devoted to delivering the line, making the point, hitting the note which cannot be repeated.
Wherever there’s new dialogue ("Old people are lucky – they know their story." sounds more like a novel than a play, but works nicely) it fits, and some of the things the film had which you cannot reproduce onstage are replaced by absolutely adequate replacements: the autumn walk is suggested by psychedelicately falling larger-than-life-leaves on video and the long drive to New York gets transformed into a paintjob for Harry which takes several days because Sally wants her new N.Y. apartment done in a very specific way ("White verging on white" as he mockingly calls it). Surprisingly for those of us who thought he might not have it in him, the mail lead delivers the goods. Billy Crystals Harry is a tough act to follow, let alone surpass, but Luke Perry, aging Beverly Hills 90210-heartthrob, mouths off and flatters, swings and swoons, sings and throws his body into the ring (once, we even get a glimpse of his backside) in so energetic and engaging a fashion that you cannot help but cheer him when he finally wins Sallys heart – the hair may be falling out, but if your weapons include natural sardonic wit and the will to learn from experience, you might just get your heart’s desire, even in erotically highly challenged times like ours.
Dietmar Dath

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