Role Players’ choice of Woody Allen play a welcome relief
in current climate
By Lou Fancher
Especially during an election year that makes politics nearly indistinguishable from playacting, we need theater that makes people laugh. We need slapstick, satire, parody, and high-low comedy that pelts us with jokes like a massage that involves brisk, light, pounding.
If “Don’t Drink the Water,” a 1966 play written by comedian, filmmaker and playwright Woody Allen about a family stuck in an American Embassy behind the Iron Curtain sounds like a shot of pure adrenaline for campaign weary muscles and brain, Role Players Ensemble has the ticket. The screwball comedy directed by Aaron Murphy runs through Nov. 12 at Danville’s Village Theatre.
Walter Hollander is a caterer on vacation with his wife and daughter when the plane they are on is hijacked and ends up in Vulgaria. The secret police suspect them of spying after the camera-happy Americans shoot photos. The Hollanders take refuge in the U.S. Embassy where they are subject to the mercies —and mishaps — of Axel Magee, the MIA ambassador’s son who is in charge.
Paul Collins plays Magee in Role Player’s production. He moved to the Bay Area from Los Angeles in 2013 and says the acting community is inclusive and small enough to get into, but large enough to provide ample opportunities. His only quibble is the same nationwide: low pay makes it hard for an actor at the upper echelons of non-union stipends to accumulate enough points to earn an Actors Equity Association membership and the resulting higher paychecks.
But like most people who love what they do despite a slim income, money matters pale when an opportunity to talk about the play and working with director Murphy present themselves. Murphy, he says, is “an actor’s director” and understands from an inside perspective the actor’s motivation, timing and how a joke is best executed.
Humor rides on multiple levels in “Don’t Drink,” from outright physical bumbling to subtle but rapid-fire jokes with inherent rhythms that if delivered incorrectly are jarring or fall flat. “The more things don’t work out (for my character), the harder he tries, which naturally makes his physical energy high strung and causes him to make mistakes and be clumsy. Comedy is difficult but it has to look easy.”
Collins has had to abandon the urge to make every word precious to achieve the speed required during long-winded passages. “When you drive to the end of a line without stopping, the pacing is much better,” he says.
The greatest challenge comes when the one-line zingers zigzag to several different characters in succession, like a bullet ricocheting. Avoiding confusion is largely a matter of positioning, which is where Murphy’s background is key. The 49-year-old Berkeley-based director attended San Francisco Ballet School for six years during his music-filled childhood and says that he grew up “addicted to watching movies on TV.”
His father was a funny man in the storytelling tradition of author and radio personality Garrison Keillor. “My dad did a thing called ‘The Vermont Sitting Club,’ all about people sitting around and eating cheese. We used to watch British comedy; Monty Python, Fawlty Towers.”
Murphy said he adored stories and would check out Jack Benny and Bob Hope comedy albums from the Mill Valley library. Yes, he tried to emulate his classic comedian heroes. “I got sent home many times from school for being disruptive. I remember walking home with a sealed envelope for my parents in 4th grade. I’d taken a joke and substituted the teacher’s wife for one of the people in the joke.”
Finding a legitimate comic outlet in theater, Murphy says he watched the 1969 film adaptation of “Don’t Drink” that starred Jackie Gleason and the 1994 remake made by Allen, who starred in the film as Hollander. Neither works as well as the stage production that ran on Broadway for 598 performances. “They’re heavily cut and the broad physicality works better onstage,” he says. “At heart, this is a play about family, about boy meets girl. The embassy angle allows Allen to keep them in one room and satirizes the formal relationships in light of the family relationships. Formal is how we want things to work out: family is how they actually are.”
Which means decorum is precarious and comedy is king, but a certain grounded-ness is essential or the play becomes fluff. “Does the wife want reassurance?” asks Murphy. “Getting back to motivation and the psychological goal makes the antics make sense to the audience.”
Unfortunately, one thing working in favor of Murphy and Collins are current circumstances. Trouble with Russia, concern about nuclear missile sites, racial and economic tension, a harried political climate and divisions within countries and families are 1960s concerns and oh, so contemporary.