Three One-Act Plays: Riverside Drive, Old Saybrook, Central Park West, by Woody Allen
In reading the plays of Woody Allen, one has to confront some very unpleasant realities. For one, there is a certain similarity across the plays of Woody Allen, and a certain unhappy resemblance between the plays and between what one knows about the life history of the playwright, that makes reading these plays a somewhat uncomfortable experience. These three plays are all given titles based on the location where the plays occur, all of them in the area of influence for New York City, whether in the city or in its immediate hinterlands. All of them feature decidedly immoral and even amoral worldviews and characters that are engaged in adultery and other activity that is viewed even by those who fancy themselves as tolerant as being uncomfortable and unpleasant, where it is not actually still illegal even in our corrupt contemporary times. All of these works also present uncomfortable questions of comedy, where the author clearly seems to be aiming for laughs but doing so in a way that makes this reader at least decidedly queasy about the proceedings. Perhaps some people will view these as great plays, but I view them as dirty windows into a dark soul. Caveat lector.
The three plays here are each about 70 pages in length or so and the book as a whole is just over 200 pages. The first play, Riverside Drive, is mostly a dialogue between two men, Jim and Fred, who appear to be two sides of the same coin. Fred is viewed as a homicidal bum and Jim as a superficially respectable person in a marriage with two sons who is trying to meet his paramour, who comes to a nasty end as Fred kills her in order to help Jim preserve his reputation as a loyal husband to his wife Lola, who Jim views as a decent if somewhat morally strict woman. Here the men have almost all the lines. The next play, Old Saybrook, has a larger cast of characters, and here we see three couples at a Connecticut house for a vacation of sorts where all sorts of unpleasant revelations about cheating come out thanks to the discovery of a diary that one of the people kept that gives vivid and cringeworthy details of his sexual exploits with his wife’s married sister, all of which prompts the intervention of the supposed writer who has set this situation up but cannot figure out how to end it properly and plenty of biting commentary. The third play, Central Park West, provides a look at a wife and a paramour of a man meeting and bickering before he joins in to tell them both that he is seeking a divorce from his wife so that he can marry a much younger woman, who then shoots him in the butt.
In all of these plays we can read some aspects of the author’s own casual approach to monogamy and loyalty, his own lack of moral scruples and moral self-control, and even a bit of self-loathing as he seems to expect the audience to laugh at those who are like himself, or laugh at the way that the various problems are resolved. Whether we are examining jealous lovers or casual sex and violence, the author is clearly writing to a sophisticated audience that sees itself as beyond the sort of moral scruples that provincial Americans are supposed to possess. These plays are not written with moral self-development in mind, and are written by someone who actively despises such morality and who seeks to blur the line between art and the artist. Yet even for such audiences–and I am not among their number–are likely to find a few aspects of these plays to be troubling, including their casual approach to betrayal and the readiness to violence that so many of these characters demonstrate. By viewing the material of domestic drama and societal decadence as the material for farces, these plays provide material that we should weep and sigh over rather than laugh so that we view ourselves as being superior to squares who still take morality seriously.