THE NEW YORKER
lAUGHTER IN THE DARK
Woody Allen on the killer instinct.
May 26, 2003
John Lahr
Mary Ellen Mark

238W-POL-201
Skipp Sudduth, Paul Reiser, and Kate Blumberg. Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark.

For nearly fifty years, Woody Allen has spun the dross of morbidity into the gold of comedy. The results of this alchemy have been precious and far-reaching. No modern comedian can match Allen’s range or the quality of his output. His humor pieces for The New Yorker and other magazines, collected in three volumes, include some of the finest comic writing of the postwar period, and, as writer, director, and (usually) star of his movies, Allen is the only comedian since Charlie Chaplin to entirely control his own product—more than thirty films, of which about a dozen have entered America’s cinematic repertoire. But the most important of Allen’s creations is his own persona: Woody the schlepper triumphant. Where the early American comics made a myth of hope, Woody makes a myth of retreat. In him, the charm of agony replaces the charm of action. As he famously observed, “How can I find meaning in a finite universe given my shirt and waist size?” In the seventies and eighties, Allen, an entrepreneur of collapse, defined a winded America; now, as he slyly admits in “Writer’s Block,” two new one-act plays (at the Atlantic Theatre Company), fatigue has become an issue for him, too.

Revenge is the gasoline that fuels great comedy. (It’s no coincidence, for instance, that “Getting Even” is the title of Allen’s first volume of humor.) In “Riverside Drive,” the better play on the twin bill, the wild, infantile, murderous impulses of the unconscious are the subject of forlorn meditation. Waiting on a park bench by the Hudson River, a self-absorbed screenwriter, Jim Swain (Paul Reiser), fidgets in that special Woody Allen ozone of fretful desire. He is expecting his mistress, with whom he is planning to break up. A bearded homeless man, the aptly named Fred Savage (Skipp Sudduth), intrudes on Swain’s solitude, unsettling him first by identifying him as a writer, then by claiming uncredited authorship of Swain’s latest movie, the idea for which, he maintains, Swain stole from a conversation of Savage’s, overheard in Central Park.

In a familiar dramatic trope, Allen gives life to the division in his own nature—the Dionysian and Apollonian war inside him—and then he lets these urges duke it out onstage. Savage, who seems to hear voices beamed primarily from the Empire State Building, offers himself as Swain’s collaborator. “You’re good at construction and dialogue, but you lack inspiration,” he tells Swain. “That’s why you have to rely on me.” He adds later, “You’re good at nuts and bolts, but you need someone who can light a fire.” As it turns out, arson has played a role in Savage’s life story, along with mental illness, electroshock treatment, and sundry acts of violence. When Swain’s pert mistress, Barbara (Kate Blumberg), finally arrives, Swain flubs the confrontation, and Savage ends up spilling the beans for him. Barbara exits, threatening to speak to Swain’s wife, and while Swain contemplates every craven maneuver of strategic apology, Savage sees only one solution: murder. Here, Allen is at his most trenchant:

Swain: It’s psychologically, morally, and intellectually wrong. It’s madness.
Savage: It’s a leap into the unthinkable.
Swain: Let it remain unthought.

This crisis of the heart is Allen’s metaphor for the crisis of the imagination. Swain distrusts and can’t connect with his own unconscious desires. “You’re too radical,” he tells his new acquaintance. “You’re too reasonable,” Savage counters. “We have hit on the kernel of your problem, kid. You can’t make the leap.” The standoff allows Allen the opportunity for some tasty comic flimflammery. “She’s a human being,” Swain protests.

Savage: You say that like it’s a good thing.
Swain: Isn’t it?
Savage: I don’t know. Have you ever gone to a tenants’ meeting in a co-op?

When Barbara returns, with Draconian demands—half a million dollars, three hundred thousand of it payable within twenty-four hours—Savage acts on his “moment of inspiration,” killing her and tossing her into the fast-flowing Hudson. “All that elaborate planning—it was bad writing,” he tells Swain. “That’s the difference between us two,” he goes on. “With you it would have been labored and overanalyzed. . . . To me it just felt right.” As Swain heads back to his bourgeois normality, Savage fires off a parting shot: “You’re a good professional—although I would recommend eventually you find someone to team up with. There’s no shame in collaborating—it’s just that you’re missing a part.”

The second play, “Old Saybrook,” a farce about infidelity, turns out to epitomize what’s missing: Allen’s ability to penetrate his own material. At the outset, he adroitly cranks his fun machine into action. A passive-aggressive accountant and his wife (Christopher Evan Welch and Clea Lewis) drop by the Connecticut house that they once lived in, only to get drawn into the new tenants’ comic slipstream of sexual confession and accusation. Then, as if Feydeau had suddenly passed the baton to Pirandello, the play changes tone and attack. The characters produce a wild card: a bound-and-gagged playwright named Max (Richard Portnow). “Sometimes an idea seems great, but after you work on it for a while it just doesn’t go anyplace,” Max says. What we’re watching, it appears, is the farce that went no place; the other characters are simply escapees from the prison of Max’s bottom drawer.

This may be Allen’s idea of a coup de théâtre, but unfortunately it’s more of a coup de grâce. To admit to your failures is occasionally a good comic maneuver in writing, but not, I think, from the stage. Once the play’s momentum is lost, so is the audience’s attention, which even Allen’s parody of a happy ending fails to win back. “I feel my writer’s block lifting,” Max says, as he hits on an idea to “give this little sex farce dimension and heart.” He tells the characters, “The key word is ‘commercial’—I’m sorry, ‘forgiveness,’ ” and then leaves them to fill in the blanks. “Every life needs a little fiction in it,” the accountant says. “Too much reality is a very nasty thing.” That is the enduring burden of Allen’s song, but in this particular comic equation the problem is that there’s not enough reality, or, for that matter, energy.

"Cavedweller,” Kate Moira Ryan’s jejune adaptation of the Dorothy Allison novel (at New York Theatre Workshop), is a fairy tale of redemption that more or less proves Woody Allen’s point about stage-managed forgiveness. Here, Delia Byrd (the appealing Deirdre O’Connell), the louche forty-year-old former lead singer of a band called Mud Dog, goes in search of the two daughters she abandoned back in Georgia fourteen years ago, before grabbing the live wire of fame. This episodic play has its hand on its heart and its eyes on your wallet. It poses a profound question—Can a bad mother repair the damage she has caused?—only to trivialize the answer with melodrama and caricature. In real life, this kind of emotional reparation would occur the day gallstones are jewelry, but, under the unprobing direction of Michael Greif, the family’s full emotional overhaul is accomplished in about two and a half noisy hours. Thanks to Delia’s dutiful penance, the angry abandoned daughters—one a renegade, the other a religious zealot—come around; and Delia’s other daughter (the excellent Merritt Weaver), from a second marriage, comes to understand both her mother and her own intellectual future. The novel “Cavedweller” tells a rich story whose psychological confusions the stage production doesn’t begin to know how to approach. Everything here remains resolutely on the surface; no corner of the soul is left untidy or in doubt. What begins as the story of an emotional mess ends up a theatrical one.

END.