Review

Writer's Block

This review of Writer's Block first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.

Riverside Drive has some of the most coveted addresses in New York located along its route and parts of it run parallel to the Hudson River and near to the George Washington Bridge.

A gloomy mist had settled in the auditorium as the audience found their seats. In front of us a balcony rail stretched across the stage with a row of municipal illuminations suspended above giving the impression of height looking down over the scene beyond. A backless bench was placed centre stage.

As the house lights dimmed, a pattern of tall buildings emerged on the cyclorama, faintly recognisable as that of the New York skyline in the fog. Jazzy music lifted the mood as Jim made his entrance and established that he had a rendezvous with someone.

We were gathered to witness an evening of two one-act plays on the theme of writer’s block by Woody Allen, one of his preferred subjects. In the first one, called Riverside Drive, a down and out former writer, Fred, accuses successful writer Jim [of] stealing his ideas, and wants his share of any royalties. Fred switches between menace and camaraderie, displaying psychotic behaviour and eloquent use of language.

Pete Dawson thoroughly enjoyed playing this role, which gave him wonderful opportunities to roll his eyes, madly grab Jim by the throat, and display any insane tendencies that the words suggested. Harry Harding played his role as Jim as the perfect foil swinging between incredulity, fear, anxiety and “nerdiness”, reminiscent of roles played by Woody Allen.

These two actors showed excellent timing and variety of pace as the character Jim struggled to placate Fred whilst waiting anxiously for his extramarital lover to appear in order to end their relationship. Fred’s menacing unpredictability and marvellously lunatic speechifying, interjected by Jim’s one-liners, were hugely entertaining.

When the blonde, marriagebreaking Barbara, played by Helen Budd, eventually appeared, the situation was well established that she was excess to requirements in Jim’s life. The threat she posed to the division of royalties became the focus of Fred’s attention. Killing her became his obvious solution.

Helen brought the element of a naive American blonde bombshell into the mix and the plot thickened when her petulant and rejected character decided to blackmail Jim for $500,000! Killing her now became a serious and urgent subject of discussion for Fred, but one with which Jim didn’t really agree ...

The director, Barry Grossman, skilfully left us with the possibility that Barbara may have lived to see another day. This was a well researched and rehearsed piece of theatre apparent from the moment one walked in, and hugely enjoyable.

The set for Old Saybrook mainly consisted of two two-seater sofas placed at angles and a rather elaborate, solid looking fireplace stage right, which was quite a feature. In this play Harry Harding played David, a golfwatching fanatic and brother- in-law to host Sheila (Davina Foster) and her husband Norman (Pete Dawson). With his wife Jenny, played by Helen Budd, the four were gathered to celebrate the seventh wedding anniversary of Jenny’s sister Sheila to Norman.

Pete Dawson, dressed in a loud, red shirt, established that Norman was a fairly loud, affluent American in charge of cooking the steaks on the BBQ, and his wife was apparently happy and secure in their marriage. This cosy domestic scene was very reminiscent of Chekhov, whom Woody Allen admired, when reference was made to the geese flying over.

The action begins when they are joined by the original owners of the house, Hal and Sandy (Mel and Mary Powell). Hal, being a brash and forthright sex obsessed accountant, was soon revealing the secret drawer hidden in the fireplace, which led to the discovery of the very private diary of their host Norman. The book explicitly recounted Norman’s love affair with Jenny, his wife’s sister.

Sandy was suitably embarrassed by Hal’s behaviour and his views on extra-marital relationships. She had hoped for a fast escape before things got out of hand and her own infidelities [were] revealed but Hal was having too much fun to leave. Norman, to his wife’s chagrin, admitted that his affair was long standing, so Sheila, shocked by the double betrayal of husband and sister, sought support from David.

The plot now developed farcical proportions as David displayed a grandstand tantrum because he was called away from watching Tiger Woods playing golf. No matter how hard Sheila tried to make him aware of Jenny’s infidelity, David was slow to believe he was actually looking at pictorial evidence involving his wife.

The pace and rapport with the audience that these two actors achieved developed into an uproarious scene as David became eventually convinced. Jenny tried to placate her sister in a touching but insincere attempt at sisterly love.

The play takes a sharp turn with the entrance of the bound but now escaped former owner Max, searching for his characters, who had restrained him.

Years of being tied up had left Max, played by Jim Maxey, with very stiff arms and shoulders, but vocally robust about his treatment. The plot had echoes of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, but Woody Allen humorously had the author searching for his characters.

With so many of them now onstage, director Barry Grossman placed the group of four, as if in a photographic arrangement, around a sofa, whilst Hal and Sandy were free to roam with Max in the available free space. After more revelations of marital infidelity by Hal, countered by Sandy, the sound of the geese returning gave Hal his line about forgiveness. The piece ended abruptly on this note of artificial sentimentality.

This was another slick production well supported by the sound, light, set and props teams, and although in my opinion the weaker of the two plays, both made for a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Photographs by Steve Beeston.

Writer's Block was written by Woody Allen and directed by Barry Grossman. The production was staged at The Little Theatre in 2017.