Up next at ACT Theatre: Woody Allen, Steve Martin and Sam Shepard.
What do the starry names attached to ACT’s combo platter of one-act plays have in common?
They’ve all made notable, prolific contributions to popular culture over several decades — as writers of plays, films and prose, as top-billed actors (and part-time musicians).
And they’ve honed singular comic voices that infiltrated an entire generation, all subscribing to Groucho Marx’s notion that “Humor is reason gone mad.”
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A summer bill of their one-acts (all staged by Seattle director R. Hamilton Wright) features Allen’s 2003 piece, “Riverside Drive,” focusing on a homeless man who accuses a successful screenwriter of stealing his idea; Martin’s “Patter for the Floating Lady,” a 1990s shortie about a magician who woos his sexy assistant; and “The Unseen Hand,” a wildly imaginative Shepard sci-fi riff on an extra-terresterial uprising, from 1969.
The 78-year old Allen’s signature style is an unmistakably wry, urban comedy of neuroses. It is a New York-Jewish sensibility fraught with romantic yearnings, nagging phobias and overarching moral dilemmas. Cross a Borscht Circuit comic with an acolyte of Fellini, Bergman and Dostoevsky, and he’s what you get.
He’s turned out romantic comedy souffles — from the play (and film) “Play It Again, Sam,” to the movie “Midnight in Paris.” Other works (ie, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”) lighten up on the one-liners to examine compromised characters in ethical straits.
Allen’s on-screen persona is original, his influence on the funny business of modern filmmakers from Albert Brooks to Judd Apatow immeasurable. And just when you think his best work is behind him, he’ll surprise you with an Oscar-worthy left-field hit like last year’s “Blue Jasmine.” (A new Allen movie, “Magic in the Moonlight,” opens in Seattle next month.)
Martin, 68, has also pushed modern comedy into existential wackiness. But he cavorts from a different perspective: he’s a WASP with deep affection for show biz Americana — strumming a banjo, wearing white suits (a la Mark Twain), doing magic tricks — but with an ironic wink.
On “Saturday Night Live,” Martin has gone to comic extremes as a preening King Tut and as a “wild and crazy” goofus. And a whimsically erudite streak plays out in his stage work: “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” imagines Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein meeting in a Parisian artists’ hangout.
More eclectic than Allen, Martin also straddles middlebrow and high culture as a star of cinematic retreads (“Father of the Bride”), and author of serious minded novels (“Shop Girl”).
If he’s a funnyman who also wants to be taken seriously, Shepard, 70, is a Pulitzer Prize-honored dramatist who is funnier than he often gets credit for.
A master of intense familial stage sagas (“Buried Child” and “Fool for Love”) and an actor in an array of films (current thriller “Cold in July”), Shepard has long threaded his writing with bleak yet playfully potent humor.
Many of his early plays from the 1960s-’70s are sardonic/serious, odes to American totems like cowboys and rock stars animated with an anarchic hipster/beatnik verve that’s been widely imitated.
His “Unseen Hand” is a mashup of Wild West cronies and bizarre sci-fi lore. A 120-year old ex-gunslinger joins a planetary liberation struggle thanks to an alien from the planet Nogo, whose people are oppressed by an invisible hand that squeezes their brains if they think certain thoughts.
The erosion of the pioneer spirit, and an America caught between fabled past and dystopian future are motifs here. But no one finds the humor in theatrical surrealism quite like Shepard does. It’s up to Wright and his actors to bring it forth — and the comic gold in the Allen and Martin tales, too.
Misha Berson: email@example.com