AN INTERVIEW HOTLINE
Ken … Gerry Becker
Dr. Russell … Paul Guilfoyle
Marty … Paul O’Brien
Dorothy … Linda Lavin
Delivery Boy … Aasif Mandvi
hotline employees … Lauren Klein
CENTRAL PARK WEST
Phyllis … Debra Monk
Carol … Linda Lavin
Howard … Gerry Becker
Sam … Paul Guilfoyle
Juliet … Tari T. Signor
It doesn’t take a genius to see that Woody Allen’s “Central Park West” is not only the longest but also by far the strongest of the three one-act plays that make up “Death Defying Acts” in its Off Broadway tryout at the Stamford Center for the Arts’ Rich Forum. So why undermine it by preceding it with a minor David Mamet fragment and an overwritten Elaine May sketch that, at the performance seen, sent some members of the audience out the door before they even sampled the Allen? Wouldn’t it be wiser to beg Allen for another one-acter to accompany his existing piece, or even offer the 70-minute “Central Park West” by itself?
“Death Defying Acts” opens, in complete silence, with Mamet’s “An Interview.” The silence is eventually broken by one of the two men sitting at an almost bare table stage center, Robin Wagner’s high-tech sliding panels and Peter Kaczorowski’s chilly lighting adding to the Kafkaesque atmosphere. An attorney (Paul Guilfoyle) is being interviewed by an attendant (Gerry Becker) whose modus operandi is to keep movement and speech to a minimum. This unsettles the attorney to the point where he loses his cool. The typically Mamet dialogue revolves around whether the attorney borrowed a lawn mower when he was young and then buried it, and injecting such obvious lines as “There’s no such thing as randomness,””What is truth?” and “Are you saying there are no honest lawyers?”
By the end of the 20-minute piece it’s clear that the attorney is being damned by his own words in an anteroom of hell, but here Mamet isn’t anywhere near top form, intellectually or creatively. And neither are director Michael Blakemoreor his actors. “An Interview” just doesn’t work.
Then comes May’s 45-minute “Hotline,” the first of the evening’s two Manhattan plays. For this piece, Wagner divides the stage in two, with a suicide hotline office on one side and, on the other, the East Side apartment of a woman bent on self-destruction. May has always had, and still has, a highly developed sense of the ridiculous and of the over-the-edge impossibility of life in New York City (even getting a suicide hotline phone number is a hassle).
But “Hotline” really isn’t a play. It’s a lengthy telephone monologue for the suicidal woman onto which May has tried to embroider a plot and other characters. Linda Lavin, as the would-be suicide, makes a satisfying meal of a character with a decidedly ardor-cooling personality who may or may not be a “paraprofessional hooker” (she’s a liar). And the play almost comes to life when she’s at full tilt on the phone. But then it commits suicide itself by drowning in extraneous chatter prior to a clumsy ending.
“Central Park West” may not be top-grade Allen, but within minutes it establishes itself as the heart and soul of “Death Defying Acts.” It takes place in the Central Park West apartment of Phyllis (Debra Monk) an analyst who lives up to such vivid descriptions as “ballbuster,””storm trooper” and “Godzilla.” Her 50-year-old husband of 12 years (Guilfoyle) is leaving her and she’s hitting the vodka most generously. One of her best friends, Carol (Lavin), arrives to find out what’s wrong and is shortly accused of being the other woman. The dialogue gets raunchier and raunchier — and funnier and funnier — as Allen creates believable Manhattan characters and allows them to slug it out verbally. Both women’s husbands eventually appear: Carol’s is a manic-depressive wimp (the “Allen role” played by Becker); Phyllis’ is a womanizer who disillusions Carol when he reveals he hasn’t left his wife for her but for one of his wife’s patients, 21-year-old Barnard student Juliet (Tari T. Signor). Right here, of course, some theatergoers may find the play echoing Allen’s own life too close for comfort.
But “Central Park West” does work, not least because of Monk’s solidly pragmatic and violently funny performance. Even its foul-mouthed raunch is acceptable (with the possible exception of one oral sex reference to the late Duchess of Windsor).
The cast is just fine, and clearly director Blakemore is more at home with Allen’s frolicsome farce than with either the Mamet or the May. Oddly, there’s something slightly dated about all three plays; the Allen, despite its X-rated dialogue, unfolds like a rewrite of Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels.”
“Central Park West” should only get better as it’s given additional performances. It’s unlikely that the same will prove to be true of “An Interview” or “Hotline.”