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The cast of "Old Saybrook"
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
As the black show scrim goes up on "Old Saybrook," the better of two middle-drawer one-acts that make up Woody Allen's Writer's Block, sound designer Scott Myers airs a few measures of the sweeping Jerome Kern melody for "Make Believe." The audience is thereby tipped that the mischievous author is poised to introduce a literary game of some sort.

And indeed, about two-thirds of the way into this bagatelle of a play, Allen springs one of the magic-realism twists that have sparked such previous works of his as "The Kugelmass Episode," the short story in which a modern-day protagonist has an affair with Emma Bovary, and The Purple Rose of Cairo, the film wherein a drab '30s housewife is romanced by the fictional hero of a movie she adores.

The difference between these examples and "Old Saybrook" is that the former are instances of the prolific humorist's most inspired moments whereas the latter piece rapidly runs out of steam. As a playwright who abruptly shows up in the midst of the "Old Saybrook" frenzy remarks, "Sometimes an idea seems great but, after you work on it for a while, it just doesn't go any place."

That has the ring of Allen providing his own commentary on a playlet in which two Connecticut couples discover that their marriages aren't as solid as they thought. Sheila (Bebe Neuwirth) and Norman (Jay Thomas) are hosting her sister Jenny (Heather Burns) and Jenny's husband David (Grant Shaud) at an anniversary get-together when Hal (Christopher Evan Welch) and Sandy (Clea Lewis) knock on the front door of Santo Loquasto's stunning, Country Living house. The visitors explain that they used to own this very home and craved a nostalgic drop-by while in the neighborhood.

Food and drink are offered and, within minutes, Hal is asking Sheila whether she knows about the secret vault adjacent to the fireplace. When she says no, he opens it for her, whereupon she extracts a diary that turns out to be... whoops, not so doggone fast! Disclosing what it turns out to be would give away too much. It's safe to say, though, that the discovery causes problems for the easygoing Sheila and the jolly Norman when he returns from barbeque duties elsewhere. Similar ruptures occur between the spoiled Jenny and the obtuse David. Soon enough, accountant Hal and the squeaky-voiced Sandy are also questioning their bonds.

It's about then that Max (Richard Portnow), the on-site playwright and the man to whom Hal and Sandy sold the place, bounces down the stairs with his hands and feet bound. He makes an announcement that, as a fellow theatergoer accurately declared, "took the air out of the play." Prior to Max's revelation, Allen had been building titillating suspense about how the six battling spouses would resolve their differences and, while at it, he'd salted some first rate Woody gags into the mix. But Max's remark settles the dilemmas of at least four of the throttled marrieds, thereby severely lowering the playlet's stakes.

The shame is that the actors, following first-time stage director Allen's in-and-out guidance and wearing costume designer Laura Bauer's just-right togs, give the impression they're primed for great fun. Most of them are television series veterans and may have been chosen by Allen (and offered by his longtime casting agent, Juliet Taylor) for their ability to deliver deft performances under high-class sitcom circumstances. First among equals is Christopher Evan Welch, whose Hal is comically officious; you like how much you don't like him. Clea Lewis, using a funny voice and a pigeon-toed stance to suggest subservient-wife uncertainty, has a good time finding her tongue in the face of her husband's overbearing manner. Bebe Neuwirth, Jay Thomas, and Heather Burns have the snap and crackle that Allen likes in his players. So does Grant Shaud, although he's got a tougher time of it since the done-unto hubby he plays is too thick-headed to be believable.

Just a word about the home that Santo Loquasto has built, with walls of vertical wooden planks. What's interesting is that those walls, though painted a margarine yellow, look much like the chocolate-brown walls that Loquasto showed off last week in Long Day's Journey Into Night. There, they seemed inappropriate, but here they have that let's-move-in-instantly allure for the ticket buyer.

Paul Reiser and Skipp Sudduth in "Riverside Drive"
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
As for Allen's curtain-raiser, "Riverside Drive," it's difficult to find much positive to say. This front half of the evening is one of those park bench plays that have frequently turned up in the past, thanks to Edward Albee, David Mamet, and Herb Gardner (to name just a few). It's the genus where two men bump into each other and get on one another's nerves until things come right -- or don't. Screenwriter Jim (Paul Reiser, doing effective duty as the latest in a line of Woody Allen stand-ins) is waiting to meet an undisclosed someone in Riverside Park when he's approached by a bagman calling himself Fred Savage (Skipp Sudduth, trying his level-best). This college-educated nuisance, who shortly proves to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, accuses Jim of stealing from him the idea for a movie called The Journey.

Jim denies the charge over and over. Passing up any number of opportunities to split the crazy scene, he refuses to acquiesce at such great length that, eventually, the so-called Fred Savage (who's not to be taken for the boob-tube actor of the same name) wheedles information about Jim's troubled marriage. When Barbara, the girlfriend whom Jim is waiting to meet (a pert Kate Blumberg) arrives and doesn't appreciate Jim's ending their relationship, Fred suggests getting rid of her permanently. (N.B.: Allen handled snuffing a de trop mistress much more successfully in the superb Crimes and Misdemeanors.) The way in which the already tedious "Riverside Drive" proceedings take a turn for the worse won't be detailed here; nor will the three or four hilarious jokes that Allen cracks be quoted, for fear of spoiling what little amusement there is to be had along the protracted way.

While word processing these plays, Allen obviously had two issues on his usually fertile mind: infidelity and, as the umbrella title suggests, writer's block. Neither of these is a new focus for him. On the unfaithful husband topic, he seems these day to believe that extra-marital liaisons should be avoided unless the philandering partner is prepared to face startling consequences. About writer's block, Allen doesn't so much reach a conclusion as demonstrate that, if these two pieces are an attempt to confront a problem with which he rarely seems afflicted, it might have been best to wait out the syndrome.

Incidentally, here's the author-director's Playbill bio in full: "Woody Allen has written and directed many films over the last 35 years and has occasionally worked in the theater." Reticent? Well, given the quality of Writer's Block, Allen has much to be reticent about.

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