- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Woody Allen’s milieu may be Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but his mind is in the gutter, his heart is in the Borscht Belt, and you don’t want to know where the rest of his body is.

His two one-act plays rendering audiences convulsed with laughter at Theater J, “Central Park West/Riverside Drive,” prove that Mr. Allen may be the baby boomers’ icon for urbane, New York Jewish intellectualism, but beyond his image as a tweedy, bespectacled jazz buff who quotes Kirkegaard lurks a potty-mouthed clown just itching for a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down his pants.

Mr. Allen’s movies of late have been a test of fidelity for his fans. Does anyone remember “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” “Melinda and Melinda,” “Hollywood Ending” — and does anyone care to? Yet he seems liberated by the demands of live theater. His rapid-fire dialogue and stream-of-consciousness allusions to philosophy, literature and arcane pop culture seem perfectly at ease within the confines of Theater J’s proscenium stage, although you do kinda miss the jazz scores and melancholy camerawork from his films.

“Central Park West/Riverside Drive,” zestily directed by Steven Carpenter, finds Mr. Allen as funny and frantically neurotic as ever — still concerned with relationships between men and women and whether free will can exist in postindustrial America. The plays also bring out a gleefully randy side of Mr. Allen that puts you in mind not of Rabelais, but of Hugh Hefner and the Playboy manse.

“Central Park West” kicks off with a joke about sex and sushi that is shockingly indelicate but roaringly funny, and takes off from there. The setting is familiar — a tony apartment on the Upper West Side.

There, Phyllis (Julie-Ann Elliott), a famous psychiatrist, is swilling martinis faster than the Russians can distill vodka and is breaking things. Her husband, Sam (Michael Kramer), a hotshot entertainment lawyer, has just told her that he wants out of their 24-year marriage.

A sexual farce ensues, with Phyllis confronting the guilty party, her friend Carol (Kathryn Kelley), a peppy bubblehead who lives to shop. Apparently, Carol runs up her credit cards and her mouth, blithely recounting Sam’s career infidelities. Then, Carol’s husband, Howard (John Lescault), arrives. He’s a manic-depressive and mediocre writer who threatens a murder-suicide but then can’t figure out how to unlock the safety catch on the Luger pistol.

When Sam returns for his things, the joke turns out to be on every wronged party, as his future plans involve a young girl, Juliet (Vanessa Vaughn), one of his wife’s patients, who’s an “anorexic with man issues.” The vituperative remarks and sexual barbs fly ferociously, especially from Miss Elliott, who seems to have acquired a viper’s tongue especially for this role. Her outrage is expressed through sarcasm, in contrast to Mr. Lescault’s reaction to the situation, in which he unravels like a plate of lukewarm spaghetti.

Mr. Lescault usually takes on more somber roles, and it’s a treat to see his loopy side — as well as his grace with pratfalls. Miss Kelley’s wispy femininity and tentative delivery remind you of Mr. Allen’s ex, Mia Farrow.

Mr. Kramer has his share of great one-liners but is more showily extroverted than centered as Sam. Fortunately, he comes into his own in the second play, “Riverside Drive,” playing a homeless man named Fred who is scarily erudite — but also is receiving messages from his TV set and the Empire State Building.

Rather than benignly muttering his way through life, Fred has chosen to be a stalker, and his prey is Jim (Mr. Lescault), a successful novelist and screenwriter. Fred is convinced that Jim stole his life for his works, and he wants money, fame and credit for his input.

Naturally, Jim has never seen Fred before in his life, but he’s sucked in by Fred’s incredible insights and observations during his more lucid moments. Fred also turns out to be an unexpected collaborator, helping Jim with a pickle involving his money-grubbing mistress, Barbara (Miss Kelley).

“Riverside Drive” is Mr. Allen at his brainy goofball best, mingling an Abbott and Costello-like routine with references to the great books, classical music, Nixon and Madison Avenue. The zingers ping-pong between Fred and Jim, making it more sheerly comic than the sexual sitcom of “Central Park West.” Both actors expertly handle the Mensa-worthy dialogue, but Mr. Kramer is especially keen as the psychotic Fred.

If these rambunctious one-acts are any indication, Mr. Allen should step out from behind the camera more often.

***

WHAT: “Central Park West/Riverside Drive,” by Woody Allen

WHERE: Theater J, DC-JCC, 1529 15th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through July 24.

TICKETS: $25 to $36

PHONE: 800/494-8497

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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