Woody Allen's "The Floating Light Bulb," a period comedy which opened last night at the Beaumont, is strictly a low-candlepower effort. It would be unthinkable, of course, not to find several funny moments in an Allen comedy, for whether writing or performing he is the outstanding deadpan comic of our day. But this is a slight, half-hearted and somehow implausible family play.
Its failings may be due partly to the fact that his third work for the stage is also his first in 12 years, the intervening time having been spent largely in movie-making, and he may be a bit rusty. But probably equally responsible are the demands (for something to fill the stage) put on him by the Lincoln Center Theater Company, of which he is one of the six artistic directors and, outside of Edward Albee, the only writer in the group.
In any case, this third offering by the new company, whose arrival was heralded with a wonderfully showy and genuinely fine revival of "The Philadelphia Story" followed by an adventurously staged "Macbeth" unhappily minus a Macbeth, is so simple a production that it might have fit cozily into one of our Off Off Broadway deadfalls.
Set in a Canarsie tenement in 1945 - the playwright was all of nine then - it describes a poor and curious Jewish household revolving around a resourceful mother, Enid Pollack, portrayed by the authoritative Beatrice Arthur, and the older of her two sons, Paul, played by an excellent young actor named Brian Backer in his Broadway debut.
Paul is an extreme introvert and stammerer who plays hooky from high school to attend magic shows. Though he has an I.Q. of 148, his consuming interest is magic, and he has collected, though heaven knows how in this impoverished household, an impressive assortment of tricks, including the title one, all of which he has mastered.
When Enid meets a show-biz manager, brother of a downstairs neighbor, her course becomes clear: Paul will become a star and help the family (it includes Enid's philandering husband Max, younger than she and heavily in debt to loan sharks, and Paul's kid brother Steve) out of its straits. Needless to say, this doesn't work out, though she does have a bittersweet moment with the middle-aged manager Jerry Wexler, another loser who is played with superb authenticity and engaging warmth by Jack Weston.
While the son's magic tricks entertain us, and the stereotypical Jewish mother's remarks and younger son's jibes are good for a laugh or two, the only involving scene is the tentatively romantic one between the mother and the manager. And once he breaks down to admit to the lifetime he's spent in quest of one solid attraction, and then goes on to describe some of the club acts he does handle, including a dog that can growl "ham-bur-grr" when its throat is grasped a certain way, Weston is delightful. I liked his locutions, too, such as "He took over my father's, may-he-rest-in-peace's, business."
Danny Aiello, though he gives an assured performance, seems miscast as the wastrel husband sporting a shoulder holster, a waiter who works for tips, most of them squandered on gambling, and who is planning to run off with a spindly young cocktail waitress (Ellen March). His part, as well as the outside scenes with the girl, seems superfluous, mere extra padding.
But above all, "The Floating Light Bulb" lacks a recognizable character, or tone. The Pollacks make an unconvincing family unit, and the dialogue, though smooth enough, lacks energy. And as a peripheral observation, I can't recall the expression "push comes to shove" being used in those days.
Ulu Grosbard has staged the play confidently, and Santo Loquasto, who is also responsible for the authentic period costumes, has done up a fine setting with glowing tenement windows looming above the Pollacks' threadbare apartment. Pat Collins has lighted the play atmospherically.
Arthur, Weston, and especially young Backer are fine to watch, but "The Floating Light Bulb" is like a play made up of scraps of others - of Odets, Williams, Paul Zindel and, well, Allen.
No one ever told you that growing up was going to be easy - not even your parents. Woody Allen's The Floating Light Bulb, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater is a play about the glories and horrors of adolescence. Especially the horrors.
It could be autobiographical but it probably isn't. Which after all, is the way of art. Art is autobiography transformed by the exercise of imagination.
There is a kid growing up in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. He spends all his time in his bedroom practicing conjuring tricks. His father is a compulsive gambler and unnatural-born loser. His mother is a woman with a whim of iron. She meets an agent and decides to encourage her elder son to enter show business - as a magician, no less.
Tragedy is comedy seen from the inside. The play has one great scene. The mother has her son to audition his conjuring act for an agent - an act that includes the famous floating lightbulb. The boy stutters. He's wearing an idiotic turban and is petrified by nerves.
The agent is fat and flaky. He's not exactly a fake - but he is as close to a fake as one can be, while still retaining some semblance of reality. He resolutely never admits to represent anyone he does not represent - not even Cesar Romero. But he - sort of - knows these people, or at least people reasonably like them.
And in this gruesome scene, the boy performs his magic act - mother and stutter not withstanding. Of course, the mother supervises. The agent watches with a terrible complicity born equally of shame and guilt. It is disaster made marble. It is the trauma that truly hurts.
It is curious. Allen has written two plays - Don't Drink the Water where the title was the best line, and the very superior Play it Again, Sam - and many movies. His movies are characterized by a grievous sense of human comedy. One would have hoped that something of this would have penetrated through in Floating Light Bulb. But it simply doesn't.
What distinguishes his movies is Allen's Bergmanesque sense of concision. Everything is spare. Nothing is wasted. The movies are brilliantly cut to some particular bone of honesty.
Here, in a play, Allen's same succinctness does not seem to apply. I say this with a certain temerity, because I feel that Allen is one of the most sensible sensibilities around in our time, and I certainly do not wish to frighten him out of the theater and into the movie house.
However, Allen does write lines as if they were meant to be hung on a camera rather than supporting life. The opening of this play is far too diffuse for comfort, the story is a cliche, and there is insufficient stress on pure dramatic values. It doesn't work at all - even as an odd mixture of Neil Simon and Anton Chekhov.
The director Ulu Grosbard has done his best to sort out the reality of life that is actually hidden in the morass of a play. He obviously has worked sensitively with the actors and probably too sensitively with the playwright.
The casting is deplorable because it is so strictly to type that you begin to question the type. Beatrice Arthur plays the mother with a kind of desperate skill that makes her look as though she were in a TV pilot. She bounces the lines on the audience as if she were in a tennis game - and losing.
Danny Aiello as the father is as lovable and disreputable as ever - but who cares? In this play? Two performances are remarkable. Jack Weston as the agent, a fat slob with a heart of friendly blubber, gives a mad credibility to his role. Here is an actor poised between a caricature and a portrait without all the proper lines and walking - a deadly highwire, who can offer the most wonderful concept that seems never to have been actually written.
The other lovely performance came from Brian Backer as the would-be-should-be stuttering magician. Here was a role that Allen had most carefully wrought. And the kid went through it without one minute imitating Allen, but forever imitating the way the playwright feels. It was a symbiosis of peculiar value.
Because the author's name is Woody Allen, we bring a certain set of expectations to ''The Floating Light Bulb,'' the new play that opened at the Vivian Beaumont last night. For the last five years, beginning with ''Annie Hall,'' Mr. Allen has been steadily staking out fresh territory as a film maker: he has insisted on being adventurous in each new movie, even at the risk of making a fool of himself.
So it's only natural that one expects ''The Floating Light Bulb'' to take him to another plateau - if not in terms of achievement, then at least in terms of daring. Hit or miss, we expect him to bring us a surprise. And that's why one is startled - and, yes, disappointed - by the conventional, modest and at times pedestrian family drama that Mr. Allen has written. ''Light Bulb'' doesn't pick up where ''Stardust Memories'' leaves off; rather, it picks up where Mr. Allen's active playwriting career left off - with his last Broadway play, ''Play It Again, Sam,'' in 1969. For whatever reasons, Mr. Allen has decided to keep the cinematic and theatrical sides of his talent on two distinctly separate tracks.
''Light Bulb'' is nothing to be embarrassed about, especially in the skillful production directed by Ulu Grosbard at Lincoln Center, but it could easily be mistaken for a journeyman effort by a much younger and less experienced writer. This is an earnest autobiographical play that recycles, to much less invigorating effect, some of the material in ''Annie Hall.'' There are a few laughs, a few well-wrought characters, and, in Act II, a beautifully written scene that leads to a moving final curtain. But most of the time ''Light Bulb'' is superficial and only mildly involving. As a serious playwright, Mr. Allen is still learning his craft and finding his voice.
Like so many young American plays, this one is overly beholden to the early Tennessee Williams. The setting is a lower-middle-class household in the Canarsie of 1945, but the milieu is pure ''Glass Menagerie.'' Instead of Amanda Wingfield, the mother is Enid Pollack (Beatrice Arthur), a proud, nagging woman who once dreamed of being a dancer (for ''George White's Scandals'') and who now, like Amanda, is reduced to hounding neighbors with telephone business schemes to make ends meet. In place of Amanda's pleurosis-afflicted daughter Laura, Mr. Allen has provided a stuttering teen-age son - Paul (Brian Backer), a bright, shy ugly duckling who retreats from life by practicing magic tricks in his grim bedroom. There's also a gentleman caller, a talent manager played by Jack Weston, who arrives in Act II to raise and then dash the Pollock family's last hopes.
Mr. Allen's family does vary slightly from Mr. Williams's. The father, a petty gambler and philanderer named Max (Danny Aiello), hasn't fled the coop yet, though he's on his way out the door. The family also contains a younger brother, Steve (Eric Gurry), who seems to exist only to provide Act I with wisecracks. Indeed, it's when Mr. Allen departs from ''The Glass Menagerie'' that ''Light Bulb'' is at its weakest: neither Max nor Steve nor Max's illicit girlfriend (Ellen March) are much more than cogs in the action.
The others fare better. As played with commanding assurance and wit by Beatrice Arthur, the mother is a dynamic survivor - so much so that she at times recalls Ethel Merman's Rose in ''Gypsy.'' She's not overly vulnerable - we don't quite believe she's the alcoholic the script suggests - and yet we ultimately care about her. Left alone and bereft in her shabby living room at the end, Miss Arthur suddenly goes white with fear. For a second, she really does seem the mother of the stammering, cowering son who is both the repository and victim of her failed aspirations.
That son is somewhat self-pityingly written, but he, too, finally touches us. When his mother yanks him out of his bedroom to perform his tricks for the visiting agent, the boy shivers and hyperventilates from panic. Mr. Backer, who glancingly resembles Mr. Allen in manner, does very well by the role: with his dark, drooping eyelids, frail posture and incongruous magician's turban, he makes us see the almost terminal loneliness of a scared and loveless child.
But the best character is Mr. Weston's. This manager arrives at the Pollacks' apartment ostensibly to audition the son, but in fact to make eyes at the mother. Mr. Allen clearly knows such small-time showbiz hustlers to their bones. Mr. Weston is full of big talk - he has met Jimmy Durante and Cesar Romero - but his own clients turn out to be fleabag acts that play ''the mountains.'' Still, he's more than a tired flim-flam artist; he's also a sad, overgrown momma's boy who lacks the courage to seize the moment with Enid. Mr. Weston, by turns craven, pathetic and funny (especially when imitating his prime client, a talking dog), brings Act II to fully rounded life.
The remaining performances, most notably Mr. Aiello's brusque, selfish Max, are good, too, but Mr. Weston has the luck to have the only sustained scene in the play. Act I is a series of splintered, underwritten episodes that are mainly designed to get the plot going. Once Mr. Weston leaves Act II, Mr. Allen veers mechanically toward his inevitable conclusion. If the ending works better than it deserves to, that's because the playwright has made the most of his two best images - Paul's magic wand and a recurring anonymous phone call.
The play's other images and themes are pedantic. The son's floating light bulb magic trick - his own glass menagerie, as it were - is too archly set up as a metaphor for life's illusions. When characters talk of their various failed dreams or doomed hopes (a winning longshot bet for the father, a big star for the agent), they do so point-blank and repetitively. Instead of announcing these warmed-over poetic conceits again and again, Mr. Allen might have paid more attention to writing scenes that dig deeper and actually flesh out the relationships among the Pollacks. It's his refusal to take that next step that makes his drama seem like mock Williams, O'Neill and Miller rather than the real thing.
Given the play's modest attainments, it might have been better served by a workshop airing in less pretentious circumstances. Santo Loquasto's towering, evocative tenement set, Pat Collins's brooding lighting and Mr. Grosbard's sensitive, fluid staging all promise an evening as grandiose as ''Death of a Salesman.'' While this full-dress production was probably inevitable, it still doesn't seem right. Like any other, less famous playwright, Woody Allen deserves the chance to develop his promising but unfinished ''Light Bulb'' away from Lincoln Center's harsh glare.