Death Defying Acts


at the Bailiwick Arts Center

By Adam Langer

This evening of one-acts is either a testament to the playwrights’ talents or an indictment of the flaccidity of modern American drama: Woody Allen, David Mamet, and Elaine May have more work of value at the bottom of their drawers than other contemporary playwrights have at the top of theirs. And though the twilight years of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller may provide an argument for enforced early retirement in the theater world, “Death Defying Acts” persuasively and entertainingly argues the contrary. At least two of these three thematically related one-acts provide convincing evidence that inspiration does not necessarily end at age 50.

It’s remarkable that the shows work as well as they do, however, given that the playwrights’ recent output for the silver screen is questionable. May’s workmanlike screenplay for The Birdcage has its share of easy yuks but lacks the wit of A New Leaf, the tension of Mikey and Niky, and the sheer giddy chutzpah of Ishtar. Mamet’s The Cryptogram, produced here last year in an excellent Steppenwolf production, is a chilling and effective exercise, but neither it nor his flat screen adaptations of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross equals the work he produced at his best, more than ten years ago. And whoever nominated Allen’s underdeveloped, laughably unrealistic Mighty Aphrodite (which featured Allen as a sportswriter who somehow dined every evening at New York’s top-dollar Le Cirque) for a screenwriting Oscar should have had their heads examined for signs of extraterrestrial life. But if nothing else, the sprightly, caustic production of “Death Defying Acts” by SummerNITE (a professional ensemble sponsored by Northern Illinois University) proves that rehashed Elaine May is better than top-of-the-line Mike Nichols, that third-rate Mamet is better than, well, fourth-rate Mamet, and that Bailiwick artistic director David Zak can do a better job of staging Woody Allen than Allen has done himself.

When “Death Defying Acts” opened in New York, director Michael Blakemore suggested in the diary he published in the New Yorker that working with notorious control freaks Allen and May was a nightmarish experience compared to working with Mamet, who was comparatively easygoing. This may be true–and God knows it would suck to spend months rehearsing a production only to have some neurotic, nebbishy author show up toward the end of the process and rip the entire production to shreds. But Mamet’s purportedly laid-back approach may have had more to do with the half-assed nature of his contribution than his delightful personality. Of the three playwrights, Mamet certainly has the least at stake.

Mamet has a penchant for elliptical philosophical treatises on justice, retribution, integrity, and the existence of God. But the trouble with the rabbinical excursions in works like Bobby Gould in Hell, No One Will Be Immune, and now An Interview is not that they’re too serious for the stage but that they’re rudimentary, garbed in pompous, frequently dull grad-school jargon. Like Woody Allen, who does a poor rewrite of an Ingmar Bergman script or casts Sam Waterston as a blind rabbi and thinks he’s tackling serious issues, Mamet only succeeds at demonstrating his own limitations as a deep thinker.

Mamet’s An Interview–a debate between an unnamed attorney and an attendant in an office where presumably people are shown either to the gates of heaven or the fires of hell–is the sort of effort that gives the overused word “Kafkaesque” a bad name. As the attorney argues his case with the indifferent and humorless attendant, the dialogue suggests an extra-credit report for Philosophical Ideas 101. Mamet’s depth-defying act is littered with “important” questions (“What is truth? Is there such a thing as a truth?”) and the occasional wince-producing neologism (“remotely construable”).

The clipped, percussive dialogue is distinctly Mamet’s, but here it has all the profundity of a 20-minute Emerson, Lake and Palmer drum solo: the beats are in the right places, but they lack meaning. The whole effort ends with a cheap, predictable lawyer joke. Even so, in the same way one might delight in the latest inferior album by a great musician, there’s a certain pleasure in once again hearing the Mametian rhythms. And Zak’s production, featuring a particularly intelligent and self-assured performance from Eric Kramer as the attorney, maximizes what humor there is in the script.

To the rescue comes Elaine May, whose meager body of work for the stage is one of the sad realities of the entertainment industry, which places a far higher dollar value on rescuing lame scripts for Warren Beatty movies than on writing great plays. Though May’s hysterical one-act is far from new (she starred with Peter Falk in an earlier version at the Goodman Studio in the 80s, on a triple bill with Mamet throwaway The Disappearance of the Jews and Shel Silverstein’s brilliant Gorilla, which hasn’t been seen since), the reworked Hotline is hilarious, poignant, and fresh, in both the traditional and hip-hop meanings.

Here an earnest new suicide hot-line worker tries to save one of May’s patented messy, self-effacing heroines– a down-on-her-luck hooker–from self-slaughter. May’s spirited one-liners, even at their most hilarious, never undercut her wry observations on the difficulties of surviving in a cold and alienated society. Though Hotline may be a trifle schematic in its contrast of the Pollyannaish hot-line worker with the sardonic, bleak potential suicide, it’s consistently entertaining and clever, especially given Tracy Michelle Arnold’s deft, on-target performance. As the snappy, wisecracking potential suicide, Arnold brings to mind a young Laurie Metcalf, devilishly intelligent and jaw-droppingly honest.

The Woody Allen entry, Central Park West, was roundly criticized in New York for its mean-spiritedness: many interpreted Allen’s nasty satire of self-righteously unfaithful upper-class New Yorkers as an unwarranted pasting of Mia Farrow. But though Allen’s humor has rarely seemed more vulgar and his view of his fellow man has never been bleaker, this is as crisply written and self-confident as anything he’s written in years. Unlike his recent paint-by-numbers works for the screen, which have been packed with misogyny, this piece displays an intelligent, equal-opportunity misanthropy. Seemingly liberated by the chance to work onstage for the first time since his unjustly ignored The Floating Lightbulb some 15 years ago, Allen delivers a work that’s hardly pleasant to sit through but is potent and unforgettable.

Beginning as a profane Noel Coward comedy of manners, Central Park West devolves into a dark, riotous, vaguely apocalyptic Ortonesque farce: the characters’ desperate, bitter attempts to find love or self-satisfaction through extramarital affairs are doomed to failure in Allen’s supremely dysfunctional Manhattan. Employing his newfound, uncharacteristic crudeness in sexual insults (“They should put your diaphragm in the Smithsonian”), which seemed merely sophomoric in Mighty Aphrodite, Allen delights in skewering both himself and his peers. Where previously he’s seemed to place himself above the fools surrounding him, here he savagely and often wittily lambastes every character, from the vicious, betrayed psychoanalyst to her contemptible, philandering husband to their sometime friends: a self-pitying, betraying wretch and her quietly cruel, neurotic cuckolded spouse.

Realizing the strength of the material he’s been given, Zak delivers a fast-paced, delightful production of Central Park West. His ensemble–led by a feisty Alexandra Billings, an unself-consciously insensitive Eric Kramer, and the wonderfully loopy Tom Groenwald–rips through Allen’s play with verve and self-assured precision. This offering alone would be worth the price of admission, demonstrating the talent of a playwright who, even if he isn’t at the top of his game, is over the top of most everyone else’s.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Matthew Kaplan.