The largely somber tone of A Second Hand Memory suggests that Woody Allen was trying to write an Arthur Miller– or Odets-style family play—the kind, set in a cramped outer-borough apartment, in which the adored scion of a Jewish family struggles to choose between saving his dad’s sinking business and running off in search of big bucks and adventure. Allen works some interesting variations on the familiar theme. The scion (a touching performance by Nicky Katt) gets an extra twist of guilt because the business failure is partly his fault, precipitated by his earlier attempt to escape to L.A., where his mother’s brother (naturally loathed by his father) is a hotshot agent. L.A. itself is depicted as a mix of drudgery and phoniness. And the whole thing’s narrated by the hero’s sister (Elizabeth Marvel, merrily grandstanding), who actually has succeeded in escaping—to a futile life of boozy sleeping around in Europe.
Despite the new twists, the material is so familiar that disaster strikes all too predictably. Allen, as always, supplies fluid staging and generally strong performances, but the characters seem to possess only two notes apiece, which they clang over and over, in a kind of emotionally fraught minimalism. And much of Allen’s dialogue, surprisingly, has a secondhand quality of its own, packed with stilted stock phrases that evoke Saturday Evening Post short stories rather than the sharp ear of an observant playwright. And the Allen rule—all adultery on stage or screen must involve one’s own in-laws—sinks the play faster than sonny boy can sink Dad’s jewelry business.