One could call "Who Killed Woody Allen?" a "benign revenge comedy." Co-authors Tom Dunn, Dan Callahan and Brendan Connor wrote the whodunit after Allen allegedly withdrew the rights to his play, "Death," from their theater company in 2001. The playwrights say they had already rented a theater, hired 15 actors and were a week into rehearsal when they received the news. "So we decided to move from Woody Allen's 'Death' to Woody Allen's death," Dunn said.
The black comedy is set at Allen's funeral, with his celebrity friends as suspects. But it's more of an homage than a roast. (Number of Soon-Yi gags: one.)
"We're huge Woody fans, and we respect him too much to take potshots," Connor said.
"We're comedy writers in large part because of his influence," Dunn said.
In fact, the 32-year-old authors have been in love with Allen's films since they attended Holy Trinity High while growing up in Levittown, N.Y. The childhood friends viewed Allen movies together such as "Mighty Aphrodite" and "Manhattan Murder Mystery."
Of why these Irish Catholics admire the Jewish auteur, Connor said, "It's hysterical the way he captures uniquely New York neuroses."
Dunn, for his part, said, "We really connected to Woody's thoughtful absurdist humor. We drew on that when we started doing improvisational comedy together in high school."
The friends moved from improv to sketch comedy to founding their Empty Stage Theatre Company around 2000. The goal was to produce lesser-known works by well-known authors; after staging an obscure David Mamet piece, the Allen fans set their sights on "Death." According to Dunn, Allen granted the rights to one production but declined when the opening dates changed. "We were totally shocked," Dunn said.
Eventually the "Death" rights issue inspired a play about Allen's last rites; but the piece doesn't dis Allen. In fact, the authors invited the filmmaker to opening night, assuming he'd get a kick out of the tribute. Instead, they received a letter from Allen's attorney, Irwin Tenenbaum: "Mr. Allen appreciates your invitation but is unable to attend," states the letter, which The Journal viewed on a Web site. "Since I have not read the play and am unfamiliar with its contents, I trust that you have adhered to and stayed within the parameters of applicable law with regard to the use of my client's name and character. I reserve all of my client's rights with regard to this project, should events prove otherwise."
Actually, the play makes relatively few references to Allen. Rather, it focuses on the shenanigans of the funeral's self-absorbed celebrity guests, who include a stammering Diane Keaton (Jillann Dugan), a kvetchy Alan Alda (Ed Moran) and a creepy Christopher Walken (Peter Loureiro). The stars pay their last respects rather disrespectfully, treating the service like a photo-op, a chance to glean publicity and promote their films.
The funeral itself is structured like an awards ceremony, with Oscar host Billy Crystal (Christopher Wisner) as emcee. "Sitting shiva, cover the 'mirra,' it's going to be a Jewish funeral tonight," Crystal sings in an Oscar-style medley. The stars continue their shameless mugging even as a detective arrives to interrogate them (we're told Allen's ex, Mia Farrow, has been cleared because she was in Angola at the time of the murder, "auditioning children to adopt.")
"The play is a satirical take on celebrity culture," Dunn said. "Of course, we're spoofing what we want the most -- celebrity -- and the irony isn't lost on us."
"Who Killed Woody Allen?" is apparently moving the authors closer to that goal. The play ran for eight months off-Broadway, earned rave reviews and will have its Los Angeles debut Sept. 22, directed by Dunn, with most of the original cast in tow.
The co-authors, meanwhile, are pitching TV and film projects, including the movie rights to "Who Killed Woody Allen?" "We even asked Woody if he was interested in directing," Dunn said. "But we haven't received a response."
"Who Killed Woody Allen?" runs Sept. 22-Oct. 3 at the Improv Olympic West Theater, 6636 Hollywood Blvd., in Hollywood. For tickets, $18, and information, call (323) 960-4412 or visit www.plays411.com/wkwa.
For more information about the play, visit www.whokilledwoodyallen.com .