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Woody Allen movies almost always make reference to psychiatrists, so it makes sense that Central Park West, the curtain-raiser in Theater J’s road-map evening of Allen comedies—the other is Riverside Drive—should center on an analyst.

Not that Phyllis (Julie-Ann Elliott) is feeling particularly analytical when we meet her. She’s sitting in a none-too-passive passive-aggressive fury as the lights come up, guzzling martinis and not answering the door as her friend Carol (Kathryn Kelley) shouts queries from the hallway. Phyllis has discovered that her husband, Sam, is having an affair and has summoned Carol to discuss the situation, partly because she has been completely blindsided by Sam’s infidelity (“I’m not perceptive; I’m just an analyst”) and partly because Carol is implicated in it.

Insults are soon flying, along with several boxes of Sam’s business papers and a file-drawer’s worth of the sort of jests you expect from Allen, both on topic and off. There are riffs on having affairs with dentists (“He charged me for an extra filling”); on impotence (“Talk about trying to stuff an oyster into a parking meter”); and on cosmetic surgery, literature, and even the nature of the jokes being told (“The reference to Third World countries is a one-liner meant to…” begins one explanatory sally). When things start to get a little dry, the playwright brings on Howard (John Lescault), Carol’s milquetoast of a cuckolded hubby, so he can be berated by both women. And when he’s been more or less shredded, Sam (Michael Kramer) puts in an appearance, as does a nervous 21-year-old bimbette he’s been schtupping on the side.

Though there are snappy lines, they’re all delivered so stridently that almost none of the action comes across as terribly funny. At first it seems the performers are just pushing too hard, but it soon becomes clear that they haven’t been left much choice. Allen’s only comic mode in Central Park West is invective—shrilly iterated, reiterated, and belabored. Steven Carpenter’s staging has the actors careening from bar to sofa and back again, but when a company can’t imbue a play with any forward motion even with a loaded gun on the premises, you have to figure either it’s incompetent or the script’s a lost cause. I’ve seen most of these folks before, and they’re not incompetent.

What’s perhaps most striking about the play’s construction is how unrelentingly snide Allen figures he can make the characters without giving them any backstory to explain all the vitriol. He’d never do that in a film; you can accuse him of many things, but not thinking through his cinematic characters isn’t one of them. Here, once he’s established whether a character is betrayer or betrayed, he just lets the abuse fly. In Tuna, Texas, when people are mean, which seems to be pretty much all the time, we know enough about their circumstances that the sniping somehow comes across as endearing. In Central Park West, apart from a neurosis and a grudge apiece, the characters don’t come with any explanation. So no matter how creatively the performers inflect it, the nastiness is just nasty.

Happily, after intermission, Allen shifts gears from neurotic to actively psychotic, and the laughs pick up considerably. Riverside Drive concerns a novelist/screenplay writer named Jim (Lescault again), who has chosen this particular afternoon to break up with his girlfriend, Barbara (Kelley), and is chagrined to find himself interrupted before he can do so in a comfortably scripted fashion, by a street person named Fred (Kramer).

Fred is a self-described paranoid schizophrenic who used to be an advertising copywriter; he now fancies himself Jim’s muse. Actually, he goes beyond that. He claims that Jim stole his life story and turned it into a movie plot after overhearing him chattering away to himself in Central Park. This, says the bum, makes him an unacknowledged co-writer on a screenplay that’s worth millions, and he’d like to be paid. When Barbara finally turns up, she’d like to be paid, too, but that’s another story.

Because Fred has the attention span of a newt, his one-liners tend to be non sequiturs (“If we were in a black hole, and the laws of physics were suspended, would I still need an athletic supporter?”), but they’re no less funny for it. He’s a terrific character, spouting ideas faster than listeners can comprehend them, spinning wild tales of his exploits in his working life—wait ’til you hear the VW commercial he’s dreamed up—and analyzing conversations (“It’s worse than Kafkaesque; it’s post-modern”) even as he’s having them.

Lescault and Kelley make a considerably more amusing couple in this half of the evening—he’s more forceful; she’s more crass—and Allen’s quips land with more regularity, too. All of which makes Riverside Drive a classier boulevard than Central Park West.CP