Everyone knows Woody Allen, whether you realize it or not. And whether you want to admit it or not, he’s a pretty funny guy. Despite a questionable code of ethics and tumultuous public persona, Allen has single-handedly defined a brand of self-conscious comedy that has inspired the Jerry Seinfelds and Chandler Bings and Ray Romanos of latter-day sitcom creation. He survived early critical acclaim from an avaricious film industry that greeted Allen with open arms and blunt daggers, and has since written, directed, produced and starred in a lengthy roster of scripts written for both stage and screen.
So it was only a matter of time before a local theater would dive into the whirlpool of Woody waters and re-surface with a nubile pair of his one-act plays, Central Park West and Riverside Drive. It’s no surprise that Washington audiences would get their first taste of live Woody Allen from the cushy seats of Theater J, but it is rather astonishing that his signature witty wordplay and neurotic observations on New York high life would result in the best pure comedy on stage so far this year.
Directed with pitch-perfect staging by Steven Carpenter, Allen’s plots beautifully (if inelegantly) unfold in an evening filled with physical humor and riotous farce. Carpenter approaches Allen’s gregarious and joyful comedy as a silver slinky headed downstairs: it’s fun to watch hopping step by step, and as it picks up speed, no one knows where it will go until it finally hits the floor in a jiggly heap.
The one-liners fly by the minute inside the same regurgitated themes Allen has explored since the beginnings of his scandalous career: sex, lies, infidelity, psychoanalysis, fickle morals and ethical obligations. Only this time, in the ”gently updated” Central Park West, the jokes are more rancid and free-flowing (”What’s the difference between sushi and pussy? Rice.”) Here the resilience of Woody Allen is evident in his thick-skinned New Yorkers, a discrepant circle of high-end urban professionals with a loaded arsenal of snappy comebacks and quelled curiosities.
There’s an inherent rhythm to Allen’s comedy, and Carpenter’s cast is more than capable of tapping into those subtle cadences with deep aplomb. The carnivorous and acerbic humor of Central Park West is first mined by Julie-Ann Elliott’s Phyllis, a sardonic psychologist who has just learned of her husband’s extramarital affair. She believes he’s been sleeping with Carol, a simpering career shopper who can’t hold her martinis, while husbands Sam and Howard each attempt to deal with the news — and their spastic spouses — in the most thoroughly unconventional of ways (Sam proposes marriage; Howard cooks).
You never want the laughs to end, and while the second act, 2003’s Riverside Drive, isn’t as uproarious as the first, it is no less enjoyable. Manhattan’s Riverside Drive is the very public setting for semi-successful novelist Jim (John Lescault) to butt heads with a certifiable nutcase (Michael Kramer) who has been stalking him for partnership rights to his best-sellers. This is no ”chance” meeting on the river, and soon Jim learns that his new friend Fred knows a thing or two about Jim’s personal affairs, including his young twins at home, whom Fred curtly describes as his ”eerie look-alike sons.” Supremely neurotic and devoid of any trace of reality, Fred peals out one unexpected laugh after another, from his alien brainwave activity to the semantics of contemporary psychiatry.
Lescault and Kramer are a perfect match for Allen’s colorful and literate wit, and Lescault is a highlight in the first act as a sharp facsimile of Allen himself. Kramer later dazzles in Riverside Drive, but his serpentine adulterer is also memorable from the earlier act. Elliott is afflicted with a Mae West edge in Central Park West, while Kathryn Kelley steals her thunder — first as whiny Carol, then later as Jim’s street-wise mistress.
Eric Grims designs a fabulous, oddball living room set fit for trendy socialites living it up on the Upper West Side, and later transforms the space into a cold, impersonal city park as Jason Arnold’s brisk lighting leaves room for imaginary circumstances.
A wildly entertaining pairing of plays, Central Park West/Riverside Drive offers a rare opportunity to re-discover the joys of one of our most prolific American comedians. It’s Woody Allen at his very best — very smarmy, very funny, and very New York.