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Central Park West/Riverside Drive

You're saying being human is a good thing?
It isn't?
I don't know. Have you ever been to a co-op board meeting?

Theater J wraps up its 2004-2005 season with a laugh fest of two one-act Woody Allen plays -- Central Park West and Riverside Drive. The first ever pairing of these two comedy gems, the performance flows well as the subtle similarities between the two plays meld together and build upon one another.

Central Park West looks at two wealthy, professional couples whose relationships are simmering pots of dysfunction. In one, celebrated psychoanalyst Phyllis discovers that her husband, entertainment lawyer Sam, not only is divorcing her but has also slept with almost every woman she knows -- including her patients, business associates and the one-legged neighbor in the apartment below.

Meanwhile their friends, Carol and Howard, are enmeshed in their own emotional trauma. Carol believes Sam is leaving Phyllis for her and Howard is having a manic-depressive attack brought on by placing his elderly father in a second rate senior home and then discovering his wife doesn't really love him anymore.

Sam, for his part, has decided he is in love with 21-year old Juliet, a recovering anorexic who until six months prior couldn't speak to a man, let alone run away with one. It's through her therapy sessions with Phyllis that she has been able to come out of her shell. It all blows up in Phyllis and Sam's chic apartment with accusations and counter accusations thrown around like dishware and china as the fivesome battle out their personal crises.

Mr. Allen uses the piece as part homage to the humor of the Marx Brothers, part screwball comedy of the Thirties and Fifties, and part dissection of contemporary mid-life relationships. The whole thing becomes a lovely whirlwind montage of one-liners, phallic jokes, fist fights and martinis.

In Riverside Drive, the action moves to Upper West Side Manhattan's riverfront and involves an adulterous writer and a genius advertising copywriter, who is now a schizophrenic homeless man. Believing Jim the writer has stolen not only his ideas but also his life story as fodder for a successful screenplay, Fred the vagrant has been stalking the unknowing Jim for some time. Basing most of his actions on messages he believes aliens are broadcasting to him via the Empire State Building, Fred has an almost idiot savant ability to string together the minute details of everyday life into an oddly complete whole. Thus he has pieced together Jim's entire personality, as well as become familiar with the most intimate parts of his life.

With the hope of negotiating a percentage profit deal from Jim's recent film success, Fred has followed the writer to the waterfront. Enter Barbara, Jim's mistress, with whom Jim, waiting by the river, plans to break up so he can concentrate on saving his floundering marriage. Barbara, however, has other plans which include either informing Jim's wife about their affair or blackmailing the author for large amounts of cold hard cash. What ensues is Allen's brand of absurdist humor mixed with film noir plotting alá Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers From A Train.

Director Steve Carpenter has brought a real treat to Washington audiences with this production. He's pulled together a terrific cast and design team to bring Allen's humor and cynical world of misfits together. The choreographed sequences of verbal battles and physical humor flow seamlessly well. So well, that the entire production appears almost flawless. It looks easy while watching, but in reality is hard to pull off.

Eric Grims' set is multi-functional. The aquamarines and purples of the uptown apartment melt away to the grey marble of a riverfront plaza. The Fifties-style cityscape outside the penthouse view turns into a fog enshrouded evening scene. Jason Arnold's subtle lighting design provides for an Empire State Building beacon which slowly builds during the second act. It's not until midway through that you realize every time Fred hears a voice, the skyscraper's light becomes feverishly brighter.

Costume Designer Susan Chiang provides upscale outfits for everyone. During Central Park West Phyllis and Sam are dressed in casual black outfits, with accents of white and leather, epitomizing their place in chic higher society. Meanwhile Carol and Howard's outfits of clinging chartreuse and rumpled suit show off their less urbane roots.

As Phyllis, Julie-Ann Elliott rapidly throws out the one-line gags, which quickly heat up the comedic temperature of the piece. She then settles into a performance with more nuance, yet never lets up on the physical humor as she delivers lines like "Even a clock that's broken is right twice a day."

Showing great adaptability, Kathryn Kelley appears twice in the performance. First as Carol in Central Park West and then as Barbara in Riverside Drive. As Carol she's a wide-eyed sidekick, who in her late forties is still trying to find her identity. Almost an "Ethel Mertz gone bad" persona. Then in Act Two she emerges as the tough talking Barbara, a working woman with stiletto heels, leather jacket and a penchant for drinking too much.

Vanessa Vaughn's naïve Juliet, the girl for whom Sam is leaving his lothario ways, comes across as part Valley Girl and part slowly empowering child who is still easily distracted by almost anyone or anything.

Michael Kramer provides two of the most dynamic performances of the plays. As the ever lustful Sam, he comes across as a rakish, but lovable bad boy who is in the throws of a mid-life crisis. Successful himself but out-celebritied by his famous wife, he is seeking attention in any other woman who crosses his path. Then as insane and raving Fred, he provides an energetic and thought-provoking portrayal of a man who in many ways is more sane than the world around him -- except that he's insane and violent. When he yells, "You're neurotic and I'm psychotic. That means I outrank you," you know the point he's making.

John Lescault's Howard in Central Park West is a mix of manic angst and depressed momma's boy. One minute wanting to shoot himself in the head, the next he's wanting to cha cha while making hors d'oeuvres in someone else's kitchen. He asks the question psychoanalyst Phyllis should have asked herself a while back: "What kind of woman are you Phyllis? You have all these close people in your life, who deceive you." In Riverside Drive he gives us a comic portrayal of a befuddled yet self-centered man who is having an affair because his wife is spending too much time with his twin sons. It never occurs to him that he may be the reason for her lack of interest in their relationship.

Theater J has brought us a strong comedy to end their season. For those who don't appreciate Woody Allen, these two plays show his comedic prowess as a writer, which is much different than his persona as an actor. This two-for-the-price-of-one show is a definite winner that will put a smile on your face and a laugh on your lips.

Central Park West/Riverside Drive
by Woody Allen
Directed by Steve Carpenter
with Julie-Ann Elliott, Kathryn Kelley, Michael Kramer, John Lescault, Vanessa Vaughn
Set Design: Eric Grims
Lighting Design: Jason Arnold
Costume Design: Susan Chiang
Sound Design: Adrianna Carroll Daughtery
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
A production of Theater J
Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW
Telephone: Tickets 1-800-494-8497, Info 202-777-3229
WED - THUR @7:30, SAT @8, SUN @3 and 7:30; $25-$36
Opening 06/25/05, closing 07/24/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 06/28/05 performance
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