Woody Allen’s Writer’s Block

Woody Allen has directed his first play, and it’s currently in previews at

the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea. Actually, Writer’s Block is

two plays: the first an absurdist take on marital infidelity set on the Upper

West Side of Manhattan, and the second an absurdist take on marital infidelity

set in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.

Riverside Drive is the kind of play which lends itself naturally to

student-theatre productions at small liberal-arts colleges: it can be put on

with pretty much no scenery or props at all, and is essentially a two-person

acting vehicle with some fantastic one-liners. Skipp Sudduth gets the best of

them; he plays Fred Savage (imagine the polar opposite of that

Fred Savage), a homicidal paranoid schizophrenic vagrant ex-copywriter. He’s

been stalking newly-successful screenwriter Jim (Paul Reiser) for weeks, convinced

that Jim stole his idea – nay, his life – as the basis

for his movie treatment.

Sudduth is an anti-Woody Allen: large, gruff, with a salt-and-pepper beard

and nary a hint of nebbishness. He’s the consummate scene-stealer, overpowering

Reiser in size, volume, charisma, creativity and funniness. He shuffles around

the stage like a demented bulldozer, emanating non sequiturs in much the same

way as the Empire State Building emanates the messages (Burn down your advertising

agency!) which only he can hear transmitted over his red vintage radio.

Reiser, playing a conventionally-successful writer who’s having an affair with

a much younger blonde, is powerlessly drawn into this crazy man’s orbit, and

eventually ends up confessing his infidelities shortly before the arrival of

his illicit lover.

Watching these two first-rate actors playing off each other is a true joy,

and the jokes – Allen at his funniest – come thick and fast. This

is not the Woody of films: rather, it is the Woody of short stories or stand-up

comedy. The action is very far from realistic, and the improbabilities and absurdities

are simply played, for exaggerated comic effect. The weirdest thing is listening

to Woody Allen’s inimitable monologues coming out of the mouth of someone like

Sudduth: it’s a bit like watching a familiar movie dubbed into a foreign language.

Once the girlfriend arrives (unlike Godot, she does actually appear), the sparks

do stop flying a little. Kate Blumberg does very well with her small role, but

she’s not on stage long enough for any kind of individuality to emerge. Her

arrival marks the end of the conversation and the beginning of the plot; she

then departs, prompting another funny conversation, reappears, and departs once

again. The plot is thin, and I shan’t summarise it here, and ends with a brave

and unsuccessful attempt at injecting some meaning and/or emotion into the material.

When the house lights go up, we’re a little confused: after all of the laughs,

are we meant to be feeling something now? Is there a moral

to this comic tale?

The audience ponders such questions for 15 minutes, ten of which are taken

up by some horrendous banging and crashing on the other side of the curtain.

The sets for the two plays are both very elaborate, and they’re both completely

different, to the point of Bebe Neuwirth and Jay Thomas having to stay very

still doing nothing when the curtain rises on Old Saybrook, to allow

the audience some applause at the transformation. And none of the cast from

the first play reappears in the second: there’s been no cost-cutting here.

The titles of the two plays, incidentally, are projected white-on-black onto

the curtain, in Woody Allen’s trademark style, just as if they were film titles.

It’s been a year, now, since Hollywood Ending was released, and Anything

Else isn’t going to come out until September, so it’s good to see those

projected on something, at least.

It’s also great seeing Bebe Neuwirth on stage, looking radiant under lots of makeup,

if that’s possible. Probably the single best moment of the whole evening is

when she’s sitting on a sofa admiring a birdhouse on the other side of the fourth

wall, which, she’s just been told, was "modelled on the Guggenheim".

Her face runs through a series of emotions from puzzlement to surprise, sending

the audience into hysterics.

Neuwirth plays the wife of an orthodontist, who is hosting her sister and golf-mad

plastic surgeon brother-in-law at her grand suburban house in Connecticut. The

arrival of a couple who once owned the building marks the beginning of an old-fashioned

English sex farce, written with verve and cunning. The cast is excellent, from

the obnoxious intruder (Christopher Evan Welch) to the sex-kitten sister (Heather

Burns), but the humour becomes increasingly strained as the writerly conceits

start piling atop each other. It’s all very well Woody Allen going all Pirandello

on us three-quarters of the way through, but even that doesn’t excuse an ending

– complete with violins – in which Allen either tips his hat to


or else simply throws in the towel. (There’s not a lot of difference between

the two: if you don’t know where to take a film/play, simply announcing very

loudly that you don’t know how to end it does not an ending make.)

Despite their endings, however, both plays in Writer’s Block are very

funny, and you’ll not regret going to see them. Don’t go expecting masterpieces

of the comic form: instead, just go to enjoy yourself and get your jollies as

they arrive. Think of this as an extended version of the Shouts & Murmurs

columns which Allen now writes for the New Yorker: great in parts,

even if you feel he could do better. After all, Woody Allen’s second best is

still better than most comedy on Broadway these days.

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4 Responses to Woody Allen’s Writer’s Block

  1. Michelle says:

    I get a warm feeling from Woody Allen. I simply adore his work, period. Although I was annoyed with “Sweet and Lowdown” – just about everything from “Bananas” to “Small Town Crooks” I’ve enjoyed. He’s become a friend over the years, some one familiar and goofy. Watching both plays could only have been written by Woody, his style comes through immediately. I agree with Felix that the endings went no where, but you’re so caught up in laughing, at the end you just don’t care. The man understands infidelity and comedy like no one else.

  2. Scott says:

    “…Woody Allen’s second best is still better than most comedy on Broadway these days.”

    True. And I think Woody’s second-best movies are better than almost anything else in the theatres in any given season. Trouble is Woody is giving us fifth-best efforts of late — the utter debacles of HOLLYWOOD ENDING and CELEBRITY, the only slightly more meritorious JADE SCORPION, CROOKS, and SWEET AND LOWDOWN.

    I saw Woody interviewed at the NYer Festival several years ago, and he was wildly charming and hilarious, a stark contrast with the unapproachable and guarded Steve Martin (who also appeared). Still, charm only gets you so far, and I’m of the opinion that Allen is more overdue than almost any other artist of his talent working today. Thank goodness he’s prolific. He is becoming the Allen Iverson of film — take enough flashy shots and something’s bound to go in. (And when it does, hello highlight reel!)

  3. Scott says:

    Ugh. Now I see he’s gone and got Jimmy Fallon for ANYTHING ELSE. I can’t imagine a more overrated…comic?…mugger?…whatever. Luckily I’m a sucker for Jason Biggs, Glenn Close, Stockard Channing, Christina Ricci, and Danny DeVito!

  4. polly frost says:


    You’ve made me decide to see Woody Allen’s latest — something I didn’t think I’d ever do again after his last few movies.

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