Brooklyn boyhoods are big this season. In New York, Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound." At San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, Woody Allen's "The Floating Light Bulb."
This is its first production since Allen wrote it for Lincoln Center in 1981. Although he says it's not a memory play, it surely sees him looking back on a certain Flatbush apartment in 1945--the part about the son constantly running into the bedroom to practice magic tricks, for instance.
But "The Floating Light Bulb" has another source. It's strongly suggestive of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," also dated 1945. In fact, it is "The Glass Menagerie," in another key.
Instead of a shy girl with a limp, a shy youth with a stammer. Instead of a disastrous party, an aborted magic show. Instead of a pushy WASP mother, a pushy Jewish mother. Instead of a long-fled father, a father who is just heading out the door.
But the story is the same. A family stakes its hopes on a gentleman caller (here, a talent agent of the Broadway Danny Rose type) and discovers how unrealistic those hopes were. All illusions, like tricks from the magic shop.
It would be interesting to know the genesis of "The Floating Light Bulb." Was Allen experimenting to see if he could write a new play to the model of an established one? Or was he looking for a firm scaffold for some very personal material?
For this viewer, the scaffolding tends to distract from the story. When poor Paul retreats to his magic box in the bedroom on the excuse that he's got to "p-p-practice," one tries not to think of poor Laura and her table of glass animals--but there it is. (In case you don't see it, director Albert Takazauckas is glad to point it out.)
But Paul's magic show--before, during, after--is its own reward. Liam O'Brien's Paul is every skinny adolescent who has ever hated his face in the mirror. He is ready to die when his mother (Joy Carlin) clamps a big purple turban on his head and virtually drags him out into the living room to perform.
This is funny, yet no laughing matter for Paul or the family, and the audience at the Geary Theatre the other night applauded the poor kid's tricks with the same fervor as his living-room audience, hoping he'd pick up some confidence. We do get involved, in time.
"The Floating Light Bulb" also knows something about brothers: They often can't bear each other. Here, Yuri Lane shows just the right scorn for his slightly sissified older brother. In general, the people in this family are too busy fighting for their lives to have any affection for one another, and Allen doesn't play this for laughs, either.
His play doesn't have much new to say about philandering husbands, and the scenes between the father (Joe Vincent) and his sweetie (Nancy Carlin) go nowhere. It doesn't help that actress Carlin has been allowed by director Takazauckas to play the sweetie as if she were Adelaide in "Guys and Dolls."
The rest of the acting is up and down. The brothers are terrific. If you met them at someone's house, you'd believe them. That's not so true of the rest of the cast, reliable ACT actors all, but tending toward stereotype.
Joy Carlin gives a vivid performance as the frantic mother, but she overworks the Jewish-mother shtick: Her performance sometimes seems to be within quotation marks. Similarly, Ken Ruta makes us enjoy the shy, pudgy manager as a stage character, but we never lose sight of the actor underneath. Vincent does what he can with the father, but there's not a lot there.
Ralph Funicello's apartment set is appropriately depressing, as are the costumes by Beaver D. Bauer and the lighting by Derek Duarte. A ceiling on the set would have projected the words of the play more evenly around the Geary.
"The Floating Light Bulb" might have more magic in another production. But it would be hard to imagine a more poignant magician than young Mr. O'Brien.
'THE FLOATING LIGHT BULB' Woody Allen's comedy, presented by the American Conservatory Theatre at the Geary Theatre, San Francisco. Director Albert Takazauckas. Scenery Ralph Funicello. Costumes Beaver D. Bauer. Lighting Derek Duarte. Sound Stephen LeGrand. Wigs Rick Echols. Magic effects Ken Sonkin. Associate director Anna Deavere Smith. With Liam O'Brien, Yuri Lane, Joy Carlin, Joe Vincent, Nancy Carlin, Ken Ruta. Closes Jan. 31. 450 Geary St., San Francisco. (415) 673-6440.