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.