IF YOU GO
What: “Don’t Drink the Water”
Where: New Castle Playhouse, 212 E. Long Ave., New Castle, Pa.
When: Weekends through Feb. 27. Friday and Saturday shows start at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday shows start at 2 p.m.
Reservations: call 724-654-3437
NEW CASTLE, Pa.
Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Water” probably seemed dated when it first opened on Broadway in November 1966. Because the play’s broad, sitcommy humor derives from the earliest days of television, it’s only fitting that “Honeymooners” star Jackie Gleason would have headlined the terrible 1969 movie version (Allen himself directed and starred in a superior 1994 TV version of the play).
Written at a time when Allen aspired to be the next Neil Simon rather than an American Ingmar Bergman, “Water” is filled with then-topical references to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Esquire Magazine and Cold War skullduggery. As a nostalgic curio, the play has its undeniable charms. It’s a classically structured farce, delivers its laugh lines on cue and leaves you with a smile on your face.
That’s also a pretty good description of the Caryn Leslie-directed production of “Don’t Drink the Water” that opened last weekend at the New Castle Playhouse. It moves at a fairly zippy pace, features some outstanding comic performances (by Phillip Clark Jr. and Aaron Zimmerman in particular) and pleasantly kills two midwinter hours of your life. What Leslie and her gifted cast can’t do, however, is convince us that Allen’s retrograde chestnut needed to be resurrected in the first place. Like the Monkees and “Laugh-In,” some ’60s artifacts look better in our rose-colored memory banks than in the actual light of day.
During a vacation in Eastern Europe, persnickety New Jersey caterer Walter Hollander (Clark), his wife, Marion (a brassy Tammy Erkman), and daughter Susan (fetching ingenue Corina Dougherty) are chased by secret police chief Krojack (Jack Burford) into the American Embassy. Amateur shutterbug Walter accidentally has taken some photos of a top-secret military installation.
Sequestered in the embassy, Susan strikes up a flirtation with the ambassador’s screw-up son, Axel (Zimmerman, immensely winning), who’s working on a plan to help the family escape. As it turns out, the Hollanders’ temporary refuge is a veritable haven for eccentrics/stereotypes. There’s a loopy chef (Ken Cole); a mad hatter of a Catholic priest (Dave Dougherty); an unctuous petit bureaucrat (Brandon McCormick); and even a visiting Sultan (Anthony Geramita) and his wife (Helen Marie Gould). Ironically, the flagrantly non-PC humor is one of the most likable aspects of the show.
Annette Crowe’s garish costumes amusingly capture the horror-show fashions that prevailed in the 1960s (Erkman’s Marion gets the best/worst of it), and Paula R. Ferguson’s neatly functional set design gets the job done.
While it’s doubtful that anyone will ever confuse “Water” with top-drawer Allen (he didn’t really find his unique comic voice until three years later with “Take the Money and Run”), the play remains a fascinating steppingstone in the artistic development of one of America’s greatest multihyphenate talents.