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A CurtainUp Review

Writer's Block

You're psychotic ---Jim
You're just neurotic. There's a lot I can teach you---Fred
I've been a Woody Allen fan since way back though I'll have to admit that his last few films have left me wishing that he'd stick to writing and directing and stop casting himself as the lead, That wish has come true in the two one-acts that are being presented live at the Atlantic Theater and if he wants to remain behind the camera in his next film, Allen has found the perfect stand-in in Paul Reiser, who is one of the three actors in the opening play, Riverside Drive.

Actually Reiser is not only acting the character typically played by Allen but the documentary film maker of his own TV show. As Reiser seems to echo his Mad About You persona, so Allen's script is a new and less complex take on his cynical 1989 film, Crimes and Misdemeanors in which impossible dark thoughts none of us dare to voice, let alone act on, move into the realm of the possible.

As long as I'm drawing parallels, Riverside Drive has the same set-up as Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, a park encounter between two very different characters, one an overly talkative aggressive invader of the more proper other man's space and, as it turns out, his psyche. In Albee's play the setting is Central Park, in Allen's, we find ourselves on Riverside Drive facing a dimly projected view of New Jersey just across the Hudson River.

The "invader" of the park bench at the foot of a stone staircase leading from the street to the river front is Fred, a bagman (Skip Sudduth). The other man, Jim (Paul Reiser), is forty-ish, middle-class and obviously anxious and in no mood for Fred's pathologically aggressive friendliness But Fred, dressed without a missed detail by Laura Bauer and egged on by inner voices made more insistent by an overlooked dose of medication, is not to be put off. What's more, we learn that he's been stalking Jim and knows all about his career (as a documentary maker-- what else?), his marriage (troubled--again, what else?) and the paramour he's waiting to meet and ditch but who, shades of Crimes and Misdemeanors, is unlikely to just step out of his life.

Sudduth and Reiser are a terrific team -- Reiser's angst-ridden Nebbish holding his own against Sudduth's hilarious maniac-philosopher. Kate Blumberg is a fairly minor presence as the mistress who demands a golden parachute but would be better served with a life preserver. However, the nonstop one-liners, good acting and apt set notwithstanding, it's all too derivative to hold up for a full hour.

(P The second play again evokes bits and pieces from Allen's film ouevre. It's connected to the first play courtesy of a character who's a writer (this time a playwright who accounts for the umbrella title of Writer's Block) and marital difficulties stemming from boredom. The setting and, consequently the title, is Old Saybrook, a Connecticut summer retreat. The cast of characters includes some favorite targets of Allen's humor -- a plastic surgeon, a dentist and an accountant, not to mention two wives who are sisters.

At just a half hour's running time, Old Saybrook packs more of a wallop than Riverside Drive and features seven actors. None are holdovers from the first play. All are excellent. Bebe Neuwirth and Heather Burns supply the requisite glamour to the roles of the sisters but it's Clea Lewis and Christopher Evan Welch who steal the show. To detail the plot would be to spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that Hal (Welch as an accountant "with a poet's heart") and Sandy (the amusingly squeaky-voiced Lewis), who now live in New Jersey take a break from an antiquing trip to revisit their first and now otherwise occupied house. Like the famous man who came to dinner, they stay long enough to create havoc.

Allen directs s both plays with a sure hand, starting each with evocative sound effects -- aptly chosen songs (e.g.: " It's Only Make Believe" as a hint for things to come in playelet #2), the rippling of the Hudson River foreshadowing the mystery of the dark thoughts rippling beneath the surface of the tranquil park scene and the honking of geese symbolizing the urge to mate but to also be free. The Atlantic Theater Company, which usually makes do with single set productions, has enabled set designer Santo Loquasto to create two scene changes that are complicated enough to make the backstage bathrooms unavailable during the first five minutes of the intermission. Both sets are terrific, as are the production values overall.

With all the money and talent thrown at this show, however, it leaves one wishing that Mr. Allen had gone the extra step to give us a more complete evening. -- trimming the overly long Riverside Drive, and re-using the elegant second set for a third and truly coup-de-Allen comic roundup. Several possibilities to bring Paul Reiser's Jim, and possibly even Sudduth's Fred, to come knocking on the door of the Old Saybrook house come to mind. It's too bad that Mr. Allen didn't divert the energy usually expended wearing his third hat as an actor to go the extra mile that would have given this two-course meal the piquant third course it deserves.

It should be noted, that this seems to be a critic-proof premiere. There isn't an advance ticket to be had for the run of the show, except for a limited number of $50 cash only seats made available at the box office two hours before each performance on a first come first served basis.

Writer's Block
Written and Directed by Woody Allen.
Riverside Drive Cast: Kate Blumberg, Paul Reiser and Skipp Sudduth Old Saybrook Cast: Heather Burns Clea Lewis, Bebe Neuwirth, Richard Portnow, Grant Shaud, Jay Thomas and Christopher Evan Welch
Set Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Laura Bauer
Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls
Sound Design: Scott Myers
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Atlantic Theater, 336 West 20th Street (8th & 9th Avenues), 212/239-6200 and
4/23/03-6/29/03; opening 5/15/03
Tue - Sat at 8pm; Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm --$50
.Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on May 9th press performance

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