Critic's Notebook: An All-Star Cast Performs Woody Allen's 'Hannah and Her Sisters' at a NYC Edition of Live Read

Matthew Arnold for The New York Times

Olivia Wilde directs and performs in this sold-out reading featuring Bobby Cannavale, Uma Thurman, Rose Byrne, Michael Sheen, Jason Sudeikis and Salman Rushdie, among others, with musical direction by Questlove.

Hannah and Her Sisters was a natural choice for Friday night's Live Read event presented by The New York Times and Film Independent at TheTimesCenter in Manhattan. Woody Allen's 1986 classic is a quintessential New York movie, and the sold-out crowd for the live performance (and a simulcast in an adjacent theater) clearly relished the rare opportunity to experience this series created by Jason Reitman which has been a hit in Los Angeles since 2011. A second presentation of a yet unspecified script has been announced for Oct. 14.

It's a brilliant concept, really. And simple to the extreme—the unrehearsed actors sit behind music stands holding up the scripts, while select images from the film are projected on a large screen. As announced before the start of the performance, it's a one-time only event, not filmed or recorded because of copyright issues, giving the audience, who've paid mightily for the privilege, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It also lends much-needed reputability to screenplays, works which don't get nearly the same respect as stage plays, which are routinely published and performed in readings.

Directed by Olivia Wilde, a frequent performer in the L.A. readings, the evening featured a crème-de-la-crème cast. The musical director was no less a personage than Questlove, who cued the musical selections ranging from jazz renditions of the Great American Songbook to Bach to, in one of the funniest scenes, punk rock. Introductions were provided by the series' curator, Elvis Mitchell, and Wilde, who joked, "I'm sorry the Hamilton tickets didn't work out."

It would be hard to top the film's sterling cast which included Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine. who both won Oscars for their efforts. But this version came close. The ensemble included Bobby Cannavale as Mickey; Wilde as Hannah, originally played by Mia Farrow; Uma Thurman as her sister Holly (Wiest); Rose Byrne as Lee (Barbara Hershey), who has an affair with Hannah's husband Elliot (Michael Sheen, in the Caine role); and Salman Rushdie, of all people, as Lee's lover, the pretentious artist Frederick (Max von Sydow). Filling the supporting parts were Maya Rudolph, Jason Sudeikis and Justin Long, with stage veteran Stephen DeRosa providing the stage directions. Questlove also had a brief but amusing speaking role, as the "Hare Krishna Leader" to whom Mickey, the character played by Allen in the film, turns to for spiritual advice.

Allen's Oscar-winning script adapted easily to the reading format. It is, after all, very literary, as pointed out in Vincent Canby's laudatory 1986 New York Times review that was reprinted in the program. And although the actors participating in the readings don't rehearse beforehand, the cast displayed an easy chemistry and made remarkably few mistakes. And when they did, it was charming, as when Cannavale momentarily lost his place and Thurman gently pushed her copy of the script over to him to guide him back.

That the actors don't work together before getting onstage adds another level of fun to the proceedings. Their spontaneous delight in each other's performances is infectious, with nearly all of them cracking up at one point or another as the evening went on.

Thurman was the standout, infusing her Holly with a hilarious neurotic intensity that suggested the actress should be given more comic roles. Sheen's Elliot was more down-to-earth and less self-regarding than Caine's, but no less effective. Bryne was sweetly appealing as the romantically confused Lee, and Wilde projected suitable earth-mother solidity as the seemingly saintly Hannah.

Cannavale played Mickey using a dead-on Woody Allen impression, a choice which admittedly scored big laughs but prevented him from putting his own stamp on the role. It also had the unconscious effect of diminishing the writing, as if it could only be played with Allen's vocal inflections. If the reading had been of, say, The Maltese Falcon, would Sam Spade have to be played in Bogart's voice?

Maya Rudolph did the same thing at times, delivering pitch-perfect imitations of Julie Kavner as Mickey's television producer colleague and Maureen O'Sullivan as Hannah's alcoholic mother. But because the roles were much briefer, it was far more amusing than distracting. She, along with Long and Sudeikis, were terrific in a wide variety of smaller roles, and DeRosa expertly handled the narrative chores.

As for Rushdie, let's just say the acclaimed author shouldn't give up his day job. His appearance was to be treasured, however, if only for his reading of a line of dialogue that had a particularly ironic subtext: "I'm going through a period in my life when I just can't be around people."

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