Feature: Woody Allen mounts one-acts

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  June 18, 2003 at 7:00 AM
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NEW YORK, June 18 (UPI) -- Woody Allen has written and directed mostly films for the past 35 years, so his rare forays into the theater are occasions of exceptional interest.

His first stage presentation in New York since he wrote one of the three plays making up "Death Defying Acts" eight years ago is "Writer's Block," an evening of two one-act plays being given its Off-Broadway premiere by the Atlantic Theater Company. Both plays are quite amusing in their own way and mark Allen's first direction of one of his works for the theater.

Needless to say, his direction is as skilled for the stage as it is for the screen, but what of the plays themselves? They are not exactly original, since they are obviously inspired by other plays and other playwrights, particularly Edward Albee, and even by Allen's own films. But as homages they work beautifully as an insider's riffs on familiar dramatic themes.

The playlets performed under the overall title "Writer's Block" have their own titles -- "Riverside Drive" and "Old Saybrook," references to a famous Manhattan thoroughfare and a suburban residential town in Connecticut. Set designer Santo Loquasto evokes these settings with a misty view of New Jersey from a Riverside Park parapet and a chintzy New England country living room.

"Riverside Drive" is the stronger, more concise of the double-header offerings, and is Allen's take on Albee's one-act "Zoo Story."

As the play opens, a well-groomed man named Jim enters the park and sits on a bench, waiting apprehensively for someone's arrival. Instead of the person he expects, he is accosted by a hulking, poorly dressed fellow who might be a bum looking for a handout.

Instead, the intruder whose name is Fred turns out to be a disgruntled would-be writer who claims Jim, a successful screenwriter, stole his last screenplay from him. He has been stalking Jim for months and knows more about the screenwriter than is comfortable -- especially that Jim is unhappily married and having an affair.

Jim's young mistress, Barbara, whom he had been expecting, arrives on the scene and adds to the screenwriter's distress by threatening to reveal their affair to his wife. How Jim's dilemma is solved by the pesty Fred is something of a shocker and not altogether believable, leaving the audience to wonder whether it really happened or whether it is a clever illusion.

Paul Reiser of TV's "Mad About You" captures Fred's slow realization that his life has reached a critical state with displays of tension and nervous confusion that are as laughable as they are pitiable. Skipp Sudduth is wonderfully menacing as the unexpectedly intelligent and articulate Fred, and Kate Blumberg is convincing as the emotionally disturbed Barbara.

"Old Saybrook" has a bigger cast and a more complex plot, obviously drawn from Allen's personal experience with scandal as the result of his marriage to someone related to him by a previous marriage. It involves a husband's affair with his sister-in-law and a son-in-law having an affair with his stepmother. It makes for the sort of neurotic comedy that is Allen's trademark.

The play focuses on Sheila's discovery of a photograph in a secret fireplace hideaway that provides incontrovertible proof that her husband, Norman, and her sister, Jenny, have crossed the line sexually. The turn of events that puts this transgression into perspective and allows for an emotionally sentimental ending is a plot twist that will not be revealed here.

Bebe Neuwirth of "Chicago" fame is attractively furious as the betrayed Sheila, and Jay Thomas is amusingly contrite as her adulterous husband. Heather Burns in the role of Jenny plays a clueless pawn, and Grant Shaud as her husband, David, has his explosive moment of rage when he learns she done him wrong.

Altogether delicious in the roles of two obnoxiously pushy strangers who used to live in Sheila and Norman's Saybrook house and have just stopped by for a look-around are Christopher Evan Welch as Hal and Clea Lewis as Sandy. They gleefully join in the farcical situation that Clea precipitates by disclosing the fireplace hideaway.

Rounding out the cast is Richard Portnow, who confesses having had a thing for his stepmother. By the time he makes this disclosure, the audience is somewhat immune to any more surprises from Woody Allen, whose perverse humor in this play is as country casual as Laura Bauer's costumes and free of any sign of writer's block, in spite of the title.

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