Three Funny Ones

In a recent essay in the New York Times, writer Larry Gelbart traced the roots of modern comedy to ancient Rome. Gelbart, creator of the television series M*A*S*H and coauthor of the 1962 musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, now in revival on Broadway, acknowledges Titus Maccius Plautus for writing comedies circa 200 B.C. that are still being performed. His stock characters and comic conventions have influenced showmen from Shakespeare to the Three Stooges.

Death Defying Acts, the umbrella title for a trio of contemporary one-act plays on-stage at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, features many of those characters and conventions, from the cuckolded husband to the double-entendre. Yet the spirit of this collection owes just as much to another Roman predilection. Whether gathering together to cheer gladiators to their deaths or to watch lions devour hapless Christians, Romans loved blood sports. And the take-no-prisoners humor in these thematically aligned works by David Mamet, Elaine May, and Woody Allen constitutes verbal bloodletting at its most vicious.

Like it or not, viciousness can provide a lot of laughs; during two-thirds of Death Defying Acts, it does just that. May's frantic Hotline, with its harrowing and compelling performance by New York actress Lauren Klein, amuses while it disconcerts. Allen's perfect jewel of a drawing-room farce, Central Park West (also starring Klein in a completely different but just as juicy role), is screamingly funny despite being malicious much of the time. In contrast, Mamet's An Interview, although mildly clever in places, rarely rises above its meanness as it snipes at an easy target -- the greedy corporate lawyer.

In the Mamet curtain raiser -- designed, it seems, to prime the audience for the longer, more fully developed work that follows it -- a newly dead lawyer (Anthony Newfield) seeks to negotiate a deal with a guard (Anthony Giaimo) at the fiery gates of Hell for the lawyer's long-term stay. The playwright, known for such stinging indictments of American culture as Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, and Oleanna, again employs his signature style of emphasizing language over plot; a clipped, almost strangulated dialogue between these two adversaries is marked by funky syntax, head games, and macho posturing. At the same time, the lawyer's desperate attempts to get his own way spotlight the theme of survival -- at all costs -- that runs through each of the death-defying pieces. On a subtler level, the attorney's tendency to hide behind legal jargon when the going gets tough illuminates another theme linking all three works: how language can be both a help and a hindrance in people's efforts to connect with one another. Ultimately, though, in its reliance on facile lawyer bashing (as appealing as that might be to many of us), An Interview doesn't tell us anything we don't already know about life, death, power, anguish . . . or attorneys.

Perhaps different hands might have rendered this Mamet short as something more than an extended lawyer joke. Unfortunately, director Robert Kalfin never quite rocks or rolls with the rhythm of Mamet's writing. Instead he reaches for the easy laugh: Newfield characterizes the lawyer as predictably stilted and pompous, Giaimo appears to be suffocating in a doorman's costume, and scenic designer Steve Lambert's set -- with the head of a fierce-looking Oriental god whose mouth is the entrance to Hell -- proves distracting. Director, actors, and designer are forgiven their collective lapse, however, as they redeem themselves, often hilariously, during the rest of the show.

Elaine May, whose one-act follows An Interview, has been performing, directing, and writing for stage and film since the Fifties. Most recently she wrote the screenplay for the film The Birdcage, filmed in Miami and directed by her long-time collaborator Mike Nichols. In the blackly comic Hotline, she gives us Dorothy (Lauren Klein), an overwrought prostitute who, scrambling for a reason not to kill herself, calls a suicide prevention center only to reach a rookie counselor named Ken (Paul Louis). Flush from his first two or three phone calls with people whose lives he believes he has saved, Ken finds himself utterly unprepared for the acid-tongued, ball-busting Dorothy. When she guilt-trips him about encouraging her imminent suicide and then hangs up, he becomes progressively unhinged until he tracks down her phone number through a labyrinthine process and reconnects with her.

This time director Kalfin gets the pacing just right, and the tension builds to an almost unbearable pitch. Klein, who understudied for actress Linda Lavin in the New York production and who played Dorothy for six weeks while Lavin filmed a TV movie, attacks the role without a shred of compromise. Over the course of the action, she develops Dorothy from a crass but lovable eccentric who searches the cushions of her easy chair for change to pay the delivery boy to an emotionally needy cipher whose demands for attention seem endless. It's an edgy, partially demented, remarkable performance that extracts uneasy laughter and leaves you feeling drained. Louis delivers an equally authentic and very comic depiction of the self-absorbed rookie Ken. And playwright May's ending, laden with ambiguous optimism, doesn't let anyone off the hook.

Next up, Central Park West, Woody Allen's savagely accurate take on fear and loathing among upper-middle-class married New Yorkers. ("Marriage is the death of hope," one character says to another during the play. Overheard in the lobby after the performance, a young woman to an older woman: "I'm not sure I want to get married any more.")

When psychoanalyst Phyllis (Klein) learns that her entertainment-lawyer husband Sam (Newfield) plans to run off with her best friend Carol (Judith Delgado), she summons Carol on the pretext of an emergency. She then proceeds to confront her. Soon, however, the apartment fills up with Carol's manic-depressive, failed-writer husband, Howard (Giaimo); a pouting, nubile, and young former patient of Carol's, Juliet (Donna Frenzel), Sam's other lover; and the returning though remorseless Sam. As the insults and accusations ricochet around the stage, and all varieties of nasty secrets are brought to light, Allen reveals his gift for wielding laser-sharp language that articulates our miseries, yearnings, and self-delusions. Forget the wistfulness that tinges the artist's most brilliant film comedies -- Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Here Allen aims straight for the jugular and hits every time.

You can almost sense the misogynist joy that Allen vicariously experiences by putting invective after invective into Phyllis's mouth: "You trollop. You tart. You bovine frump. You cunt." Yet neither sex escapes Allen's scalpel. Howard is a nebbish whose sexual performance, according to his wife, resembles "putting an oyster into a parking meter," while the philandering Sam, emasculated by Phyllis, lives for illicit sex. Allen doesn't avoid sticking it to himself either. When Howard points out that Juliet is young enough to be Sam's daughter, Sam leeringly responds, "But she's not."

Kalfin crisply choreographs these domestic shenanigans while Klein pungently depicts Phyllis as a woman with much greater purpose than Dorothy's in Hotline, but with an equal desire to abuse the people around her. Newfield and Giaimo get to break out of the confines of Mamet's opener and hysterically go head-to-head as rivals. Delgado alternates between fawning as the supplicant friend and lover and seething as the woman scorned. And Lambert's black-and-white set design of an Upper West Side apartment with a view of the city wittily references a generic New Yorker magazine cartoon.

David Mamet's contribution to this comedy collection about modern anxiety may not weigh in as substantively as its companion pieces, at least in the Playhouse's production of Death Defying Acts. But sitting through it is a relatively painless price to pay in order to relish Elaine May and Woody Allen's wickedly funny offerings.

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