The setup: Although he had previously co-written the Broadway revue From A to Z (1960), Woody Allen, already famous for his stand-up routines and comedy writing for TV giant Sid Caesar, went solo with his first Broadway comedy, Don't Drink the Water (1966). The play had a successful run for a year and a half, but it wasn't very good then, and it's not any better in this mildly updated version at Country Playhouse.
To start, it's a sketch of a play and seems to have been written on the run, without so much as a nod toward Allen's hero, George S. Kaufman, a true golden-age theater icon responsible for some of the immortal classic comedies (Dinner at Eight, You Can't Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner). The structure, where there is one, is skewed if not completely off, with characters coming and going, mostly going, leaving scenes flat and unfulfilled. The mismatched young couple fall in love without so much as a decent setup. The most inventive idea is Father Drobney (warmly played by Dave Howell), a priest living in sanctuary inside the U.S. embassy, who's a bad amateur magician. It's so bizarre, it's endearing. He's also our sometime narrator, which is a nice touch.
American tourists Marion and Walter (Sylvia Armendariz and Marq Del Monte) and daughter Susan (Kaitlyn Walker) take refuge inside the American embassy in Beijing, fleeing evil Commie Krojack (Steven Martinez), who thinks they are spies. The ambassador has left for two weeks, leaving his incompetent son Axel (Taylor Biltoft) and officious Kilroy (Louis A. Crespo) in charge. Axel is the Woody Allen personae not yet formed, and we miss him terribly, for there's nothing for him to do except be stupid, trip over his feet and get his hand stuck in Susan's hair. That's not much of a handle for any actor to grab, but Biltoft does fairly well when he's not bellowing his inability to do anything right. He's not alone in not knowing what to do in this paper-thin comedy.
Physical comedy is extremely difficult to pull off if it hasn't been choreographed down to the second and rehearsed over and over to get it to look unrehearsed and spontaneous. Otherwise it comes off looking like much of this: poorly thought-out and awkward. Getting stuck in a straitjacket should be handled as if it's the funniest bit of business in the world, not two actors flailing away on the couch. Stuff like this has got to build; it's not a throwaway. And if director Amelia Ornelas is going to make a big deal out of physical action, it's got to have, if nothing else, a payoff. Most of the bits just stop, like the play itself.
There's no consistent style. It's every man for himself. Armendariz, as a prototypical, Woody Allen-whiney Jewish mother, gets it right, as do Martinez, as the bullying Krojack (a character name left over from where the play was originally set, in a nameless central European dictatorship), and Walker, as the giddy daughter out for adventure. She bubbles with delight as Axel wheels her around the room in a desk chair. Crespo is crisply efficient as killjoy Killroy, while the rest manage as best as possible. The unpopulated party scene is a staging nightmare, since there are not enough people to create any sense of crowd for the family to make an unnoticed getaway. Country Playhouse's Cerwinske stage is notorious for eating up sound, and too many of Allen's punch lines get lost in transmission due to poor projection and muffled delivery.
Sorry, CP -- and Mr. Allen, too -- this is not one of your best productions.
Woody Allen's first full-length comedy runs through May 5 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. Purchase tickets online at the theater's Web site or call 713-467-4497. $12-$22.
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