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Death Defying Acts

The umbrella title "Death Defying Acts" works quite well for the first two of three new one-act plays, by David Mamet and Elaine May, but it's a gift to Woody Allen, whose "Central Park West" is the evening's entire second half and the segment most difficult to assess.

An Interview Cast: Paul Guilfoyle (Attorney), Gerry Becker (Attendant). Hotline Cast: Gerry Becker (Ken), Paul Guilfoyle (Dr. Russell), Paulo O'Brien (Marty) , Linda Lavin (Dorothy), Aasif Mandvi (Delivery Boy), Lauren Klein, Dan Desmond. Central Park West Cast: Debra Monk (Phyllis), Linda Lavin (Carol), Gerry Becker (Howard), Paul Guilfoyle (Sam), Tari T. Signor (Juliet).

The umbrella title “Death Defying Acts” works quite well for the first two of three new one-act plays, by David Mamet and Elaine May, but it’s a gift to Woody Allen, whose “Central Park West” is the evening’s entire second half and the segment most difficult to assess.

The brief curtain-raiser, “An Interview,” is bottom-drawer Mamet, the latest example of his penchant for self-parody. Two men sit silently on gray chairs at a gray table in a gray, featureless environment. Finally, one, a nervous lawyer (Paul Guilfoyle), begins sputtering in that familiar staccato known as Mametese.

His interviewer (Gerry Becker) lets the lawyer natter on — the putative subject is whether he once borrowed a neighbor’s lawnmower and subsequently returned or buried it — occasionally interjecting a question or comment before consigning him to the flames of hell.

The setup is obvious from the outset, and so is the punch line (asked why he is damned, the interviewer says the lawyer made two critical errors in life:”You passed the bar and you neglected to live forever”). But there is something death-defying in the nervy back-pedaling and second-guessing of Guilfoyle’s savvy but sinking lawyer.

The same may be said of Ken (Becker), a novice telephone counselor, and Dorothy (Linda Lavin), a suicidal East Sider, who are the two main characters in May’s “Hotline.” Dorothy is a classic May character — funny, neurotic, adorable in her unlikableness — for whom the mere act of finding the right suicide helpline becomes a triumph of dogged self-determination over every obstacle Manhattan can afford, from non-English-speaking operators to busy 911 lines. There’s pathos too, as when she confides, “When nothing happens to you long enough, it begins to feel like the nothing that will happen to you for the rest of your life.”

Ken is an equally engaging creation, a character whose initial success with a couple of clients turns him fatally smug: When Dorothy presents a real challenge , he wigs out until May allows himhis own small triumph over the odds.

“Hotline” may be little more than an extended exercise for two actors, but here it’s a satisfying comedy (yeah, I liked “Ishtar”). Lavin owns a voice that could cut glass one moment and break your heart the next — she’s the distaff equivalent of Nathan Lane. In “Hotline,” even her body language is slangy. And yet she underplays Dorothy, who may or may not be a depressed hooker but who never devolves into stereotype.

Triumph is not a word that comes to mind with “Central Park West,” which offers the most accomplished writing of the evening but also the most heartless.

Here, in a quicksilver change of character, Lavin plays Carol, who arrives at the Central Park West apartment of her friend Phyllis (the formidable Debra Monk), a famed analyst whose husband has just announced he’s leaving her for another woman. As the two women get drunk, Phyllis accuses Carol of being the other woman, and Carol eventually cops to the charge.

Not, however, before admitting that while she may indeed love Sam (Guilfoyle) — for whom she is all too willing to dump her wimpy failed writer of a husband, Howard (Becker) — she is only one of Sam’s many infidelities, presumably his “death defying acts.”

As it happens, it isn’t Carol Sam’s leaving for; it’s Juliet (Tari T. Signor) , a 21-year-old college student and patient of Phyllis’. The revelation comes as the two middle-aged couples spar, their tawdry ripostes reaching for, but never nailing, the self-aware bitchiness of Noel Coward.

And when Juliet shows up, a scene of unrelieved meanness degenerates into something even less palatable. The only thing missing is “The heart wants what the heart wants,” Allen’s famed reply to the question of why he took up with Mia Farrow’s adopted college-age daughter.

Would “Central Park West” seem so self-serving and ugly if it were merely fiction? The play hardly makes a case for cradle-robbing, but that’s beside the point, as is the argument that artists have always used their own most controversial attributes in their work.

What’s so unsavory about “Central Park West” is Allen’s apparently unchecked compulsion to settle private scores in public, exploiting real people he once loved. “Central Park West” is almost wholly devoid of human feeling.

Though I found “Central Park West” loathsome, others may see it as the height of sophistication. It’s certainly hard to argue against the merits of Michael Blakemore’s suave production. Monk is irresistible — if never entirely believable — as the foul-mouthed Phyllis, and Lavin is again terrific, this time as the foil. Robin Wagner’s settings are simple though bland, and Jane Greenwood’s clothes are exactly right.

“Death Defying Acts” brings together three different comic voices under one roof for an uneven evening. It’s likely to leave a lot of theatergoers scratching their heads about what they’ve just seen. It never lives up to the noble purpose that title suggests. And the main event is actually quite life-defying.

Death Defying Acts

Production: A Julian Schlossberg and Jean Doumanian presentation of three one-act plays (one intermission) by David Mamet ("An Interview"), Elaine May ("Hotline") and Woody Allen ("Central Park West"). Directed by Michael Blakemore.

Crew: Sets, Robin Wagner; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Jan Nebozenko; production supervisor, Steven Zweigbaum; casting, Stuart Howard/Amy Schecter; press, Boneau/Bryan-Brown; general management, Richard Frankel Prods./Marc Routh; associate producers, Letty Aronson, Meyer Ackerman. Opened March 6, 1995, at the Variety Arts Theater. Reviewed March 2; 499 seats; $ 45 top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

With: An Interview Cast: Paul Guilfoyle (Attorney), Gerry Becker (Attendant). Hotline Cast: Gerry Becker (Ken), Paul Guilfoyle (Dr. Russell), Paulo O'Brien (Marty) , Linda Lavin (Dorothy), Aasif Mandvi (Delivery Boy), Lauren Klein, Dan Desmond. Central Park West Cast: Debra Monk (Phyllis), Linda Lavin (Carol), Gerry Becker (Howard), Paul Guilfoyle (Sam), Tari T. Signor (Juliet).

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