Woody Allen, a man not exactly known for his cinematic celebration of wedded bliss, takes yet another dim view of matrimonial contentment in this new pair of one-act plays staged by the author for the Atlantic Theater Co. These minor works are united under an umbrella title suggesting their central theme is literary constipation, but it’s really Allen’s familiar — and increasingly belabored — preoccupation with sexual infidelity that takes center stage. A bright cast made up almost exclusively of ex-sitcom stars works amiably to enliven the modestly funny if somewhat sour proceedings.
The first item, a seriously overextended sketch that suggests Albee’s “Zoo Story” rewritten as a sitcom, finds screenwriter Jim (Paul Reiser) locked in an increasingly deranged battle of wills with a mentally disturbed homeless man. The philandering Jim has made a date with his girlfriend on a lonely stretch of Riverside Drive. Before she arrives, he’s accosted by a grubby character calling himself Fred Savage (Skip Sudduth) who reveals surprisingly intimate knowledge of Jim’s life — “rodentine” wife Lola, g.f. Barbara, etc. He’s convinced that Jim stole the idea for his hit movie from him, and he wants payback.
Although he’s dressed in greasy tatters, Fred reveals a talent for elegant comic phrasing and a philosophical bent, even as he claims to be receiving transmissions from the top of the Empire State Building. Jim, who’s merely neurotic (“I’m psychotic,” offers Fred, “I could teach you a lot”), also knows his way around a punchline, even if some are a bit worn. When they begin sparring over Jim’s infidelity, Jim allows that his shrink told him to stop. “So I stopped seeing the psychiatrist,” he adds.
The improbability of this encounter is underlined by Jim’s endless reiterations of annoyance, which the likably understated playing of Reiser can’t save from sounding forced. Armed with a cell phone to cancel or postpone his assignation, who would stick around to take abuse from an obviously disturbed and possibly violent man? And the play takes a still more preposterous — not to mention distasteful — turn when Jim and Fred begin plotting to kill Barbara (Kate Blumberg), who threatens Jim with blackmail when he tries to give her the brush-off.
The second offering is livelier and funnier, although with a larger cast on hand it also reveals Allen’s rusty technique in writing and directing for the stage. It takes place in the roomy living room of a house in Old Saybrook, rendered with inviting warmth by Santo Loquasto.
Sheila (Bebe Neuwirth) and Norman (Jay Thomas) are playing host to her sister Jenny (Heather Burns) and Jenny’s husband, David (Grant Shaud). The cocktail hour is interrupted by the arrival of another couple — there’s an Albee-esque quality to this setup, too; think “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” meets “A Delicate Balance.” They are Hal (Christopher Evan Welch) and Sandy (Clea Lewis), who once owned the house and have stopped by to take a look.
When Hal points out a secret compartment in the fireplace to Sheila, she discovers a diary Norman has been keeping of his rampaging sexual affair with Jenny. Outraged comic sniping ensues, with Hal and Sandy revealing fissures in their own marriage — ultimately announcing that they, too, have both conducted extramarital affairs.
There are some juicy laughs, mostly coming from the appealingly daffy Lewis and Welch, who take casual glee in watching the fireworks until things cut too close to home. But a lot of the jokes sound either familiar or forced. When one of the women tosses off the phrase “over my dead body,” you can predict her husband will say, “I’m not discussing our love life.” And the gag about David’s obtuse inability to comprehend that his wife and her brother-in-law are getting it on — despite photographic evidence — is stretched well past the point of amusement. This play, too, takes an unpleasantly violent turn before a late twist borrowed from Pirandello.
And superior though it is to “Riverside Drive,” it also represents Allen in less than top form. For one thing, it’s clear he’s used to writing for the movies, where the camera frame usually focuses on one or two people. The dialogue here tends to keep breaking down into one-on-one confrontations that leave the rest of the characters onstage stranded. Allen the director is clearly at a loss when this occurs: The characters not involved in these exchanges often sit frozen in artificial attitudes of anguish or annoyance before the camera, as it were, pans back to them and they spring back to life.