Woody Allen seems perfectly content to churn out one small, inconsequential movie after another and occasionally squeeze in a small, inconsequential play. He was once a hero for many guys my age. There was a time when my friends and I awaited a new Allen project the way my daughter holds vigils for J.K. Rowling. Allen, though, lost me after the whole Mia/Soon-Yi mess. As he's grown older, his tone-deaf penchant for casting himself as a romantic lead against ever-younger female co-stars hasn't helped, either.
Evidence of his take-him-or-leave-him status is confirmable in the pairing by Theater J of two of his more recent one-act plays, "Central Park West" (1995) and "Riverside Drive" (2003). Apart from their both being named for emblematic New York thoroughfares, the playlets are bound by the recurring obsessions of his early work -- sex, psychotherapy, death -- as well as a late-career absorption in the subject of infidelity.
These are, on the whole, minor entertainments. The evening is mildly diverting and brought to the stage in reasonable shape by director Steven Carpenter, though in the opener, "Central Park West," the actors massage the material too shrilly to harvest all the laughs. "Riverside Drive" is fresher. It features a brilliant comic lick (concerning the plans for the murder of the woman one of the characters is seeing behind his wife's back) and a trio of deft performances. The strongest of these is by Michael Kramer as a homeless wacko with a penchant for dispensing advice, much of it informed by the overeducated voices in his head.
Armchair psychologists will observe that both plays revolve around the idea of emotional and sexual betrayal and -- more to the point -- how easily we find ways to forgive ourselves our transgressions. "Central Park West," first produced off-Broadway in an evening of short plays by Allen, David Mamet and Elaine May under the umbrella title "Death Defying Acts," is set in the West Side apartment of a well-heeled middle-aged shrink, played here by Julie-Ann Elliott. In the midst of a divorce so bitter that she spitefully tears to shreds the business documents her lawyer-husband, Sam (Kramer), has left in boxes, Elliott's Phyllis thinks she has figured out with whom Sam has been fooling around.
The metier of "Central Park West" is serial unfaithfulness. Phyllis's friend Carol (Kathryn Kelley), on hand to lend a shoulder, is implicated, and soon the flat is awash in unseemly revelation. The characters are all equally unlikable. Swilling martinis and spewing venom, Phyllis is a particularly unappetizing gorgon, telling us at one point that an acquaintance of hers is aroused by the Heimlich maneuver. Now, she adds, "wherever she dines, she gags." Many of the jokes are on this level, prurient in ways that put you in mind of flashers, peeping Toms and dirty old men. Allen gave full flower to the leering side of his humor in "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask" (1972), a movie that has not worn as well as some of his other early, slightly less sex-crazed comedies.
The dialogue in Allen's plays and screenplays has a meter almost as rigid as anything in Moliere, and Carpenter encourages the actors to conform to rhythms we all recognize as New York Jewish Neurotic. As frequently happens in an Allen play or movie, someone in the cast is the designated Allen surrogate: Here it's John Lescault, playing a meek, hyper-articulate writer named Howard, married to Carol. Lescault exaggerates the character's nervous energy to a degree that tests tolerance. In any event, the performance is yet another strident element in a strained exercise.
Ultimately, it's determined that Sam is an unpardonable rogue and Phyllis a psychoanalyst in desperate need of examining her own mile-wide blind spot. Ho-hum. The half-baked slapstick conclusion, involving a Luger, an aging Casanova's rear end and an anxiety-racked 21-year-old, is a little desperate, too.
Carpenter displays a much finer feel, and the audience has a jollier time, after intermission. Even Eric Grims's single set proves a more congenial fit for the second play, "Riverside Drive"; in "Central Park West," the institutional-looking floors and railings in no way suggest luxury on the Upper West Side. These set elements do work for "Riverside Drive," which takes place outdoors, on a bench, with the Hudson River just out of view.
Waiting there is another writer, Jim, this time played to calmer -- and more pleasing -- effect by Lescault. He's soon accosted by Kramer's Fred, a street person touched with madness, who's been silently stalking Jim and now insists that he stole from Fred the idea for a successful movie. But Fred's a therapy-minded kind of kook: Knowing that Jim has agreed to meet his mistress (Kelley) at the bench, he offers a sympathetic ear.
The banter is on a much funnier plane than that of "Central Park West." (When the play was unveiled two years ago in New York, it was directed by Allen himself, in an evening of two Allen one-acts called "Writer's Block.") Fred notes that while "schizophrenic" has an unpleasant ring, bipolar "sounds like an accomplishment." Over the issue of whether behaving like a human being is desirable, Fred remarks, "Ever been to a tenants' meeting at a co-op?"
Allen maintains a drumbeat here about men who cheat on women -- his own ongoing therapy, maybe. And, as in his movie "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989), a discussion ensues about murdering the troublesome "other woman" who threatens to go to the wife. This in turn leads to an inspired exchange of far-fetched schemes for disposing of Kelley's greedy Barbara.
The playlet, the shorter of the evening, keeps pressure on the comic accelerator as long as Fred occupies the driver's seat. And Kramer's charismatic portrayal supplies the proper dash of showmanship. He gives the piece a measure of rugged charm. It's the most persuasive aspect of a hit-or-miss evening, the sort that, unfortunately, one has come to expect of Allen.
Central Park West/Riverside Drive, one-act plays by Woody Allen. Directed by Steven Carpenter. Lighting, Jason Arnold; costumes, Susan Chiang; sound, Adrianna Carroll Daughtery. With Vanessa Vaughn. Approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. Through July 24 at the Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1616 P St. NW. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.