On New Year’s Eve 2005 I dashed off a quick review of the paperback collection of plays and posted it on Amazon.com under the not-quite-a-pseudonym ‘Matt’. Here is a revised (and corrected) version with some additional comments on Allen’s 2007 humour collection Mere Anarchy.
Three One-Act Plays (Riverside Drive, Old Saybrook and Central Park West) by Woody Allen. 213 pp. Random House, 2003; Mere Anarchy by Woody Allen. 160 pp. Random House, 2007.
After a long hiatus – and without any let-up in his one-film-a-year routine, as constant as the earth’s orbit around the sun – Woody Allen has returned to both theatrical writing and casual comic pieces for the New Yorker. Random House has collected the work in two books.
Allen had early Broadway hits with Don’t Drink The Water and Play it Again, Sam. Two short plays, “Death” and “God”, were included in his 1975 collection Without Feathers (the third part of that purported trilogy, “Sex”, does not seem to have been published or even performed). But my pitch for Allen’s best play – no masterpiece, but an enjoyable read – is the little-known Floating Lightbulb, which was presented by the Lincoln Center Theater Company in 1981 with Bea Arthur and Danny Aiello, and published in 1982. A Secondhand Memory, which Allen directed off-Broadway in 2004, has yet to be published.
The three collected one-acts are middling comedies about infidelity. In common with most of Allen’s recent films, they do not reveal a desire to explore significantly new thematic material. They are a total disappointment.
“Central Park West” is the least interesting. It originally appeared in 1995 on a triple bill called Death Defying Acts with short plays by David Mamet and Elaine May. It anticipates a love-quadrangle scenario Allen would explore more effectively in his excellent film Deconstructing Harry (1997): a man leaving his wife not for his long-term mistress but for another, much younger, woman. Of course, the mistress initially thinks she is the one with whom the husband will be running away. The play is, I guess, meant to be a kind of satire of rich New Yorkers. It doesn’t really come off. I have to resist the temptation to seize on this line and turn it against its creator -
“You’re a failed writer, Howard – judging from the characters you create you shouldn’t even be a writer – you should be in the cardboard business.”
For a laugh and an insight into the pains of a director who must deal with the whims of three famous playwrights, check out Michael Blakemore’s diary of the production in the New Yorker of 3 June 1996.
In 2003 Allen directed “Riverside Drive” and “Old Saybrook” as a double-bill called Writer’s Block . “Riverside Drive”, the best play in the book, focuses on an adulterous writer who, while waiting to meet his soon-to-be ex-mistress in a secluded spot by the Hudson River, is harrassed by a mentally unstable and homeless writer. The action goes on to revisit elements of the Martin Landau plot of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Match Point (2004) would pick up on that old framework as well.
“Old Saybrook” is similiar to “Central Park West” albeit with a mild post-modern twist. Halfway through the action we discover our cheating couples in Connecticut are actually characters from an abandoned play by a playwright named Max Krolian (“It’s dark in the drawer,” explains one character). Krolian joins in on the action to try to figure out an ending.
Mere Anarchy contains eighteen short pieces, about half of which originally appeared in the New Yorker. If you enjoyed the early comic writing, you’ll enjoy this book. Absolutely nothing has changed in Allen’s world. Allen indulges his S.J. Perelmanesque verbosity, conversations are peppered with archaic Yiddish slang (“boychik”, “nudnik”), and we get characters with names like Flanders Mealworm and E. Coli Biggs. My favourite story is probably “This Nib For Hire”, in which Mr. Mealworm is hired to write a novelisation of the Three Stooges.
It has been a ritual of mine since adolescence to attend the annual Woody Allen film despite generally diminishing returns. I began with the excellent Deconstructing Harry in 1997, twenty years after his period of greatest popularity. I’ll wager a sentimental nostalgia accounts for some of the loyalty of his fan base: we remember what he meant to us as young people with cultural aspirations.
Back then Allen’s fictional world seemed sophisticated. He also had the appeal of being an auto-didact. He was not born high-brow but rather in working class Jewish Brooklyn. We too could become part of a world where people discuss Proust, Bergman, Kafka, the meaning of Art and the meaninglessness of the universe.
Adam Gopnik wrote a terrific essay on Woody Allen (in the New Yorker of 25 October 1993) that explores the relationship of Allen to his audience. Gopnik reads Allen’s comedy of the ’60s and ’70s as a chronicle of self-education: “He parodied Kafka, Camus, Bellow, Kierkegaard, van Gogh’s letters, Ibsen biography, Joyce criticism….Under inspection, the jokes reveal a surprisingly simple formula: the mundane details of New York Upper West Side Jewish life juxtaposed with the sombre morality and unyielding high seriousness of the modernist classics.”
(This made him a perfect contributor to a magazine like Playboy, at the time an often silly but generally good-spirited publication for middle-class men who craved sex and sophistication in modern America. The Playboy version of sophistication was usually that acquired through consumption of clothes, cars, gadgets, etc.. That said, some of the best writers and intellects of the era contributed to the magazine (and the pages were prone to advertising not just cologne and booze but also a mail-order set of the Great Books of the Western World). Bill Osgerby’s book Playboys In Paradise is the best exploration of this phenomenon.)
Then there were problems. Gopnik continues: “Just when the Partisan Review hierarchy of values, which placed high modernism above all other modes and traditions, was disappearing for good, Woody chose to be its last apostle. He went serious. The trouble was less with the ambition than with the details. By the time of Interiors in 1978, it had become plain Woody knew only a very slice of New York life. He had no sense of how most people lived and spoke. Wasps were completely alien; he kept mistaking their silences for thoughts.”
I had the same feeling about Another Woman, which I wrote about in a recent blog post. Allen’s aspiration to the WASP milieu is evident, but the intellectual and cultural references are unconvincing. The absence of satire here from one of the great American comedians borders on embarassing.
Joe Queenan has just published a piece of his usual schtick in The Guardian, but he has a point about the cultural references of Allen’s films:
“…art, music and literature serve a phony, ornamental function; you never really believe that any of his characters actually enjoy abstract art or have read Aristophanes. It’s just an excuse for the college drop-out Allen to show off. “Look, Mom! I know who Modigliani is! See, I can pronounce the word ‘Proust’.” Match Point is like a dozen other Woody Allen movies: Low-Fat High Culture, Bergman for Beginners……ostensibly a parable about the role of luck in human destiny, Match Point is actually yet another opportunity for the notoriously craven, Wasp-obsessed director to suck up to the wealthy.”
One way or another, I will find it difficult to get used to a world without annual Woody Allen movies. It hasn’t happened yet. The next movie has just opened at the Cannes film festival. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, looks promising and uncharacteristically sexy. It stars Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson. The trailer, which for some reason contains no dialogue, is here: