Sell-out run for Woody Allen's theatre debut

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The Independent US

Woody Allen is playing to very small audiences again. This would normally trouble the notably neurotic writer except for one thing: his latest work was written for the stage and opened last Thursday at the tiny, off-Broadway Atlantic Theater in Manhattan. Better, its entire run, though fairly short, is already sold out.

Interest in Writer's Block, which consists of two one-act playlets, Riverside Drive and Old Saybrook, has been intense. Its casts are packed with well-known television actors such as Bebe Neuwirth of Frasier and Paul Reiser, who, with Helen Hunt, rose to fame in the sitcom Mad About You.

More intriguing, however, is what this means for Allen himself. Aged 66 and with his stature as film-maker somewhat dimmed, he finds himself in unknown territory. Though he has written or co-written nine plays, this is his first shot at directing actors in live theatre.

"Every now and then I get an idea that I think would be more suited to the stage than to film," he told The New York Times. "The two one-acters that make up Writer's Block are both such ideas. I've never directed anything in the theatre before and have no idea whether I'll have any flair for it."

Apparently, he has something. Though the reviews were mixed, most critics found qualities to celebrate. And for die-hard Allen fans there are plenty of echoes from his films, even down to the black-and-white titles he projects above the stage. And, of course, the themes here are instantly recognisable and Allen-esque. He gives us characters whose lives are suddenly destabilised by – guess what – sex.

"Allen has succeeded in providing a theatrical equivalent to his well-calibrated films," noted Frank Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter. But even he went on: "Peppered with Allen's usual quotient of amusing one-liners and dealing with themes oft explored in his films, Writer's Block ... has a tossed-off feel for which no amount of expert comic acting can compensate."

For Allen, the excursion may offer distraction from his recent troubles in the world of movies. Last year saw the release of his latest work, Hollywood Ending, which did only mediocre business in the United States. It was the last in a string of critical disappointments, none of which generated the kind of impact seen with his more famous works such as Hannah and Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanors.

And far more compelling last year were the headlines from his court battle with his former partners, Jean Doumanian and Jacqui Safra. Allen was suing them for allegedly cheating him out of $12m (£7.4m) before the two sides reached an unexpected and undisclosed settlement in mid-trial last June.

Nobody expects Allen to give up film-making for the boards. However, in a recent interview he seemed to betray disillusionment. "If I had three words to define myself I would say I am a failed artist," he told an Italian magazine. "I am not even an actor. Dustin Hoffman is an actor. Jack Nicholson is an actor. I'm not."

At least Allen can now enjoy the kudos of a theatrical sell-out. And his actors appear to be happy, too. "It's fun. It's luxuriously easy," said Paul Reiser during rehearsals. "A few hours a day I sit around in a room with Woody Allen making jokes work. That's fun."