"Twice Around the Park," a new double bill of comedies by Murray Schisgal, allows Anne Jackson to tear into Eli Wallach on two occasions in two different settings. So it can't be all bad. But it very nearly is.
However long Schisgal may have labored over these brief plays, they amount to little more than extended sketches--not so much slap-happy as slapdash. Presumably, Schisgal is giving us variations on a theme--the eternal warfare between the sexes. But while the first battle involves a lady cop and an unemployed actor who inhabit the West Side of Central Park, and the second shows us a well-heeled but maladjusted married couple on the East Side, the differences are, in fact, superficial. In both instances, it's a case of bicker, bicker, bicker.
In the past, Schisgal has gotten his share of comic mileage out of put-upon urban dwellers, who feel misunderstood and unappreciated, and who wear their misery as if it were the red badge of courage. (See "Luv.") In "Twice Around the Park," which began a six-week pre-Broadway run in the Eisenhower Theater Saturday night, they are up to their old tricks and whines again, although this being the 1980s, they are somewhat more willing to confront such subjects as orgasm and masturbation. If Schisgal views them as more than the sum of their frustrations and neuroses, however, he's not saying.
He knows what is ludicrous about his characters. Logical argument is not their strong suit. Their emotions are in a perpetual flip-flop. And their anger, pent-up too long and just itching to bust out, can be triggered by the most inconsequential of offenses. But I'm not sure he knows -- or even cares -- what might make these creatures endearing. As a result, two hours in their company is trying and intermission time at the Eisenhower comes as a welcome cease-fire.
Since squabbles are the order of business, it is just as well that Jackson and Wallach are doing the squabbling. They are not only skilled performers; they are wonderfully complementary adversaries. She is the more aggressive of the pair, quick to externalize her griefs and let the world know precisely how she feels: Had! As the lady cop, pushed to the edge of her patience by the arias that Wallach insists on playing at top volume on his stereo, she barges onstage with a 10-league stride -- billy club aloft, her book of summonses flapping. She is clearly ready and willing to smash the stereo or Wallach or both.
But the billy club is not her only weapon. She can do just as much damage with sarcasm. Her eyes can shoot daggers of frost. And when she retreats to an injured pout, it is hardly a retreat at all. Her mouth seems set in concrete--obstinate, unyielding, defiant.
Wallach, on the other hand, is ulcer material. He digests insults, grits his teeth, clenches his fists and lets the tumult fester inside. As the unemployed actor about to get slapped with a fine for noise pollution or as the beleaguered husband confronted with a disintegrating marriage, he would really prefer to avoid any unpleasantness. If Jackson is going to push him around, he'll be pushed for a while. It's not that he's incapable of fury, but rather that the fury in him invariably comes out circuitously -- whooshing from his nostrils, ears and locked jaw in thin jets of steam.
She blows up and gets red in the face from the exertion. He tries not to blow up and gets equally red in the face. Two comic temperaments are meshing very tidily here and that mesh is responsible for whatever moments of liveliness the evening possesses.
Give Schisgal his due. He has at least conceived an amusing premise for the second of his playlets. In a trendy East Side living room -- an artwork made of knotted rags hangs on the wall, so you know it's the East Side -- his characters are trying to patch up their 26-year-old marriage by following the exercises in self-awareness that have been recorded on a cassette by a trendy marriage counselor. At first, the instructions are simple enough -- calisthenics for limbering up and relaxing. But before long, the voice of the therapist is advising a whole gamut of touchy-feely games. "I now ask that the husband dance for the wife," orders the tape, and the look of dismay on Wallach's face, as he struggles to improvise appropriately virile movements to the dissonant twang and thump of Indian music, is to be treasured. (Since she once had ambitions of becoming a Rockette, Jackson's character simply goes into some leftover tap routines, when the tables are reversed. The turn is equally funny.)
The increasingly outrageous demands of the tape are good for 15 minutes, though. Unfortunately, there are another 40 or so, and Schisgal fills them by having his couple hash over the gripes and deceptions of married life. The wife's belief that sex should be a solemn experience "like a wedding or a funeral" and the notion that the regional president of Suicides Anonymous is "an insurance agent" pass for jokes.
Still, the second half of "Twice Around the Park" is preferable to the first, in which the lady cop and the actor try to top one another with stories of how rottenly the opposite sex has treated them. (In a characteristic complaint, the actor observes of one of his prior wives, an alcoholic: "She's the only wife I had who knew how to make a vodka salad dressing.") By the end, the two are giving every indication that they will fall in love, their rampant hostilities notwithstanding. Just why is anybody's guess.
Schisgal is not good at bringing people together. His forte is observing how they get on one another's nerves. The spat is the only dramatic mechanism at work in "Twice Around the Park." Short as the evening is, it seems, as a result, to drag on for a very long time.
TWICE AROUND THE PARK. By Murray Schisgal. Directed by Arthur Storch. Sets, James Tilton; lighting, Judy Rasmuson; costumes, Ruth Morley. With Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach. At the Eisenhower Theater through Oct. 2.