It's hardly news that Eli Wallach is a droll fellow, and his wife, Anne Jackson, an accomplished foil, but their combined efforts can do no more than Murray Schisgal's "Twice Around the Park," a brace of comedies that bowed at the Cort last night, than create a mildly diverting evening.
Slight as these efforst are, Schisgal has difficulty in sustaining them, so that they go limp every now and then. Part of the blame must go to the director, Arthur Storch (the production, first offered at Syracuse Stage last season and subsequently in Washington and other cities, has certainly had enough time to break in), whose staging lacks sufficient inventiveness, but most of it must be put on Schisgal, who has tried to stretch a couple of thin premises into one-act plays, with the result that they look like nothing more than attenuated revue sketches.
In the first, and older, of these two pieces, somewhat arbitrarily entitled "A Need for Brussel Sprouts" for reasons not worth going into, Wallach plays Leon Rose, a middle-aged actor long between shows and getting by on an occasional TV commercial. Having just been forced to give up an East Side flat for a West Side one, he's rehearsing to audition for a pizza commercial by playing an operatic recording full blast while pretending to be the tenor soloist. Enter an enraged policewoman (Jackson), summons book in hand. She turns out to be Rose's upstairs neighbor, the imagined "old hag" who has been banging the pipes with a skillet in futile efforts to get Rose to keep the noise down. Whereas Rose has been thrice married and divorced, Policewoman Margaret Heinz is a fairly recent widow with two teenage children. Need we say more?
In the second and livelier piece, "A Need for Less Expertise," a couple in an East Side co-op, Gus and Edie Frazier (Gus has risen from cab driver to owner of a fleet), are trying to reawaken their desire for one another after 26 married years by following instructions issuing from a cassette and voiced by a therapist in oracular tones seasoned by Oriental mumbo-jumbo. At intervals, they switch off the machine to engage in recriminations and, as in the first playlet, there is a desperate air about the author's comic inventions.
Not that Schisgal is devoid of properly lunatic notions or amusing turns of thought, but too often his jokes have TV tremors, as when the actor, in describing the first three robberies of his East Side apartment, during which silverware, appliances and everything else of value was taken, remarks that on their fourth visit the thieves left food stamps in the denuded flat.
The real flaw, at least for an evening of sustained light comedy, is Schisgal's reliance on gags instead of characters. In both plays, the Wallachs play cartoon people bent to the author's jokey twists and turns instead of distinct individuals.
The two stars - he, in particular - make the evening as playful as possible, Eli with that pleasantly strangled sound of his, like a man talking through a wad of wet Kleenex, and Anne with her clear, bright, level tones. They are nice to have around in James Tilton's amusingly opposed living rooms for either side of Central Park, and in Ruth Morley's apt costumes and Judy Rasmuson's cheery lighting. But Schisgal owed them a good deal more.
Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach are a thoroughly engaging couple of actors. It is a pity that playwright Murray Schisgal in his brace of one-acters, Twice Around the Park, has not come up with something that engages them more gainfully.
These two duets for mildly eccentric voices, which opened at the Cort Theater last night, are neither quite funny, nor quite bizarre enough. They are mild almost to the point of tastelessness, and it is the tastelessness of the bland rather than the naughty.
However they do give us the not-to-be-sneezed upon opportunity to see that gifted pair, Wallach and Miss Jackson, make a little out of nothing in one play, and something out of a little in the other. For devotees of comic acting it might - with all its attendant frustrations - prove enough.
Schisgal - who in the past has specialized in the eccentricities of the commonplace, as in his best play Luv - here offers us two pairs of mixed doubles trying to survive the sexual revolution that passed them by.
Particularly Miss Jackson, who plays in both sketches a woman of a generation left adrift by the high seas of women's Liberation, is given a role that will probably be a recognizable caricature to many in the audience.
In the first sketch she plays a semi-tough cop, deserted by two husbands and disillusioned by men. Wallach alos has had his share of matrimonial skirmishes. An actor - currently best known as "the Meow-Meow man on the Pussygrub commercial" - he incurs Miss Jackson's wrath by playing his stereo too loud.
She is his neighbor in the upstairs apartment. She comes down to give him a summons - and Schisgal takes it predictably from there, with Miss Jackson and Wallach doing their level best for him at a level almost of mountaineering.
The second sketch is better. A rich, self-made man who owns a fleet of cabs is having menopausally marital differences with his wife of 26 years.
At the request of a friend they play a tape calculated to awaken their psychic and sexual awareness of one another. As the tape proceeds its hortatory way, telling its victims to do this, do that, the barren wasteland of their marriage is comically revealed. It is meant to be wry and funny-sad; instead it is dry and funny-silly.
It ends happily - more or less. The tragedy of Schisgal's comedies is not that they end happily, but that they are more or less programmed to end happily. They are trivial without being light.
The humor is tortured. There are some genuine laughs here - it would be an extraordinarily unfunny funny man who could not strain out a few droplets of drollery throughout an entire evening - but most of the wit is contrived and banal.
This is typical. Wallach, as the actor reduced to kitty-kat commercials and aspiring to advertise pizza by miming operatic arias, describes his trouble with burglars at his earlier apartment.
"The last time they broke in," he assures us, "they found there was nothing to take - so they left a book of food stamps."
You may find this funny. I find it the symbol of a joke rather than a joke itself - the idea of a crook finding poverty pitiable is potentially amusing. But, to my mind, his reaction is too far-fetched to embrace that scintilla of truth that transforms a comic idea into a fully rounded laugh.
Schisgal is niftily aided and abetted in his half-hearted assault on our humorous susceptibilities. Arthur Storch is the fleet-footed director, and James Tilton has designed a brace of West Side/East Side N.Y. apartments that are neatly and appropriately ghastly.
But the evening belongs - if it belongs to anyone - to the actors. Wallach's deflated clown face, that every now and then perks up with a villainous grimace, is a joy to watch. The touchingly autumnal radiance of Miss Jackson, indomitably spunky, eternally discouraged, is equally appealing.
But while they are nimble enough throughout Schisgal's clumsiness, a nimble shuffle, like a clumsy shuffle, remains a shuffle, which ever way you schlump it.
Murray Schisgal has always been an exasperatingly uneven writer, so it's no surprise that ''Twice Around the Park,'' his pair of one-act comedies that opened last night at the Cort, splits directly down the middle. No sooner has Mr. Schisgal severely tried our patience with his strained curtain-raiser, ''A Need for Brussels Sprouts,'' than he gets us laughing, freely and almost continuously, with his loony and shrewdly crafted second sketch, ''A Need for Less Expertise.''
But theatergoers game for featherweight, even silly entertainment may still find that the evening adds up to a bit more than 50-50. The sum is greater than the parts for the simple reason that all the parts are played by Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach.
As they long ago demonstrated in ''The Typist and the Tiger'' and ''Luv,'' Miss Jackson and Mr. Wallach are Mr. Schisgal's foremost interpreters. Actually, they have no serious rivals in this field - they own the franchise. It would be pointless to imagine anyone but Mr. Wallach playing Mr. Schisgal's irascibly childish middle-aged men, who bare their teeth in futile rage as soon as a sensible woman appears to deflate their egomaniacal masculine logic.
And it would be absurd to think of a more perfect Schisgal woman (or maybe even a more perfect woman) than Miss Jackson - who is cool, poised and intelligent except on those occasions when she crumbles to the floor to demand that Mr. Wallach give her a sound kicking. (Don't worry: Miss Jackson doesn't deserve the punishment, and Mr. Wallach, deep down, is far too kind to deliver it.)
In the superior second cartoon at the Cort, the stars play Gus and Edie Frazier, an Upper East Side couple whose 26-year-old marriage is nearly shot. As Edie tells Gus, ''I have one question to ask you, and then I'm not speaking to you for the rest of your life.'' Yet the Fraziers, while down, are not out. In a last-ditch effort to rekindle dormant passions, they have procured a self-help audio tape cassette devised by Dr. Oliovsky, ''the world-famous nutritionist, psychiatrist and Oriental philosopher.''
Dr. Oliovsky's tape is a series of at-home exercises, best performed in jogging outfits, designed to improve a couple's spiritual awareness, health and sex life. As written by Mr. Schisgal, the spiel is a dead-on parody of Richard Simmons, Werner Erhardt and Jane Fonda rolled into one; the Oliovsky regimen allows its followers to transform ''selfness itself'' into ''a bright diamond'' even as they ''kneel side by side at the altar of life'' and fight cellulite.
The tape is also a clever device for reopening all the old wounds of the Fraziers' marriage. As Gus and Edie carry out Dr. Oliovsky's progressively more absurd recorded instructions (complete with sound effects), they must come to grips with their conflicting feelings about such matters as Gus's infidelities, Edie's low self-esteem and the sensual properties of feet.
There's even a real issue in this play. Edie is a victim of our times -''a misfit, caught in between,'' as she puts it - because the woman's movement came along to liberate her two decades after she had already pledged her allegiance to homemaking. No longer happy to be her husband's domestic and no longer able to pick up independence where she left off, she finds that her newly raised consciousness brings her only guilt and discontent. To Mr. Schisgal's credit, however, he states this dilemma without transforming it into a cause.
Certainly it doesn't get in the way of the comedy. Edie has a tendency to invoke song lyrics when sparring with her husband and, in one sublime bit, Miss Jackson delivers a portentous spoken recital of ''Bye, Bye Blackbird'' while simultaneously helping herself to some self-dramatizing slugs of Scotch. A little later, when she is told for the first time that it is permissible to laugh during sex, she wonders just what such laughter might sound like and provides several dizzy possibilities.
As for Mr. Wallach, he follows the tape's instructions and tries to stimulate his wife with an improvised jungle mating dance. In his green velour track suit and Gucci gold chains, he looks like Mayor Koch trying to impersonate Barry Manilow.
The first play also deals with feminism. It presents Miss Jackson and Mr. Wallach as a pair of warring Upper West Side neighbors - a policewoman and an out-of-work actor. The cop, having barely survived an abusive husband, is skeptical of all men, just as the actor's three bad marriages have taught him to be threatened by all women.
The work is easily as dated and didactic as it sounds. Both the premise and its execution are contrived: the two strangers meet under farfetched legal circumstances, then progress predictably from confrontation to confession to union, with each compressed stage induced by artificial theatrical means. Similarly, the forced gags lurch out of reality too often to be funny: in addition to idle digressions into toilet and anatomical humor, Mr. Schisgal gives the actor an alcoholic former wife who made ''vodka salad dressing'' and asks us to believe that the policewoman would briskly frisk her patently harmless antagonist for illicit drugs.
Even so, the stars have their moments - as when Miss Jackson casually douses herself with water to dampen a sudden, unwanted flush of lust or when Mr. Wallach goes mildly beserk on discovering that his apartment's previous tenant had died in his own current bed. But too often Mr. Schisgal tries to tug his players down to earth so they can advance his play directly with announcements like, ''Relationships are painful,'' and, ''There's more anger in me than I can handle,'' and, ''God only made a man and a woman, and we have to make the best of it.''
Arthur Storch, the director, has made the best of both comedies, with some lively help from Ruth Morley's costumes but none from the routine sets and lighting. Though he and Mr. Schisgal can't disguise the fact that ''Twice Around the Park'' makes it around the park only once, they were most thoughtful to enlist two actors who are delightful company even when running in place.