`Death Defying Acts' Falls Short of Exhilarating

One-act plays by Mamet, May, and Allen hit on sensitive topics

DEATH DEFYING ACTS Plays by David Mamet, Elaine May, and Woody Allen. At the Variety Arts Theatre.

It's a little dispiriting when three playwrights on the order of David Mamet, Elaine May, and Woody Allen contribute one-act plays for a collective evening of theater, and the results are as pallid as those on display in ``Death Defying Acts.'' Allen's contribution, at least, smacks of an effort, but May and Mamet seem to have dashed off their one-act entries during a busy weekend.

The opener, Mamet's ``An Interview,'' is further evidence that this brilliant playwright's forte is not the one-act (unless he is writing a full-length one-act, a la ``Oleanna'').

A conversation over a bare tabletop between a fidgety lawyer (Paul Guilfoyle) and a relentlessly smiling ``attendant'' (Gerry Becker), it is at first baffling in its obliqueness until the actual circumstances are revealed. They are only surprising in that they represent such a cliche.

When substance is lacking in a Mamet play, his poetic use of language, usually so vivid and illuminating, can be irritating in its pretentiousness. This brief sketch is irritating to the extreme.

May's ``Hotline'' is set in a suicide-prevention office (also a setting for the recent disastrous film by Nora Ephron, ``Mixed Nuts''), and it begins promisingly. This noted satirist, who has had scant few plays produced, has not lost her ability to write acerbic humor and nastily funny dialogue.

The play tells of the phone encounter between Ken (Becker), a novice at the office, and Dorothy (Linda Lavin), a foulmouthed would-be suicide whose sarcastic put-downs reflect a despondency and a limited tolerance for suicide-prevention cliches.

Little does she know that Ken, full of idealism and emotion, is actually desperate to save her life to the point that when she hangs up on him, he marshals the resources of the other workers at the office, the phone company, and the police department in a frantic effort to track her down.

May is no stranger to black comedy, and the spectacle of Dorothy, hurling insults at everyone from telephone operators (``Can I speak to someone who isn't Spanish?'' she requests) to her would-be rescuers is actually funny, particularly with Lavin's expert form of comic abrasiveness.

But the play skitters uncomfortably on the edge between farce and melodrama, and we're not quite sure what we're supposed to make of Ken's over-the-top efforts (he informs the police that Dorothy has planted bombs all over the city). He is clearly emotionally disturbed himself, yet he is, after all, trying to save a life. The writing never quite manages to handle tones, and the results are uncomfortable and unpleasant.

Unpleasantness is also the order of the day in Allen's contribution, the longest and most substantial of the evening. But here, too, the playwright is working in mode. ``Central Park West'' features the kind of upscale and quirky New Yorkers that are Allen's specialty; the piece plays like a ``Saturday Night Live'' version of his ``Husbands and Wives.''

Phyllis (Debra Monk), a therapist, informs her best friend, Carol (Lavin), that Sam, Phyllis's husband, is about to leave her. Carol acts shocked at the news, but Phyllis isn't taken in. She knows that the woman that Sam is leaving her for is actually Carol.

This doesn't come as good news to Carol's husband, Howard (Becker), who shortly arrives at the apartment, already depressed because he has just put his father in a substandard nursing home. (As a souvenir, he has retrieved his father's German Luger, not a good item to have around under the circumstances.)

In the course of the evening, Howard learns that Carol has been unfaithful not only with Sam but also with a slew of other men. Eventually, Sam (Guilfoyle) also arrives, but he has surprising news for both women; he's actually running off with another woman, one of Phyllis's patients, an aspiring film editor barely in her 20s.

The evening consists largely of one-liners and hurled insults; Allen has certainly not lost his witty touch. The play contains some of his stops-out funniest writing in years, even surpassing his hilarious but subtler film ``Bullets Over Broadway.'' But eventually the mechanical contrivances and the stock characterizations wear thin.

It doesn't help that everyone onstage is utterly unlikable, nor that Allen is once again exploiting, for comic effect, a relationship between an older man and a much younger woman. Allen, of course, has had his share of trouble over this topic in recent years. The character in his play gets his just desserts: He loses the girl and is wounded with a gunshot.

``Central Park West,'' as funny as it is, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

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