We've all had bad days at work, but Axel Magee's takes the cake. About 45 seconds after being put in charge of the American embassy in a nameless Eastern Bloc country, the hapless, incompetent diplomat faces a life-and-death international incident, leading to two hours of madcap comedy in Woody Allen's first play, Don't Drink the Water.
Allen's early work could often be described as Marx Brothers meets the Borsch Belt. In this case, Axel has been left in charge of the embassy because the ambassador, his gruff and thoroughly competent father, is giving him one last chance.
But his hope for a quiet few weeks in the tiny Soviet satellite country are dashed by the Hollander family, a trio of tourists from New Jersey. The father, Walter, has taken some holiday snaps that happen to include shots of missile silos and other secrets.
Axel, in his own inimitable way, manages to inflame the situation, trapping the Hollanders in the confines of the embassy while protestors surround the building and secret police chief Krojack plots ways to get his hands on the family.
This makes the embassy a hothouse as the oh-so-suburban Hollanders struggle with being stuck so far from home and try to avoid causing any more international incidents.
Meanwhile, Axel has become smitten with daughter Susan Hollander, a free spirit who is not looking forward to returning to New Jersey to marry her dull attorney fiancé.
All the elements for a farcical good time are here: outsized characters, a dangerous situation, a bit of sex. Director Benjamin Kutschied and a game cast make the most of this meal.
A farce, of course, doesn't make for particularly deep characters. Charles Numrich glowers and skulks about as Krojack, providing an appropriate level of menace. H. William Kirsch and Muriel J. Bonertz easily convince as the long-married, bickering Hollanders. They represent Allen's New Jersey, the heart of everything cheap and crass, from Walter's incessant complaining about the food to Marion's need to clean and re-clean every square inch of the embassy. (Note: The play was written in the 1960s; gender roles are not particularly advanced.)
But Mark Mattison is the key. If we don't sympathize with Axel and his plight, it's going to be a long two hours. Mattison garners our affection the moment he emerges on stage in a mismatched suit and ugly shoes. It's a performance based on a loose-limbed, awkward presence. This man isn't just in over his head. He's trapped at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
It's up to Kutschied to keep the action taut. Don't Drink the Water hums along from beginning to end, building to a ludicrous and convoluted conclusion that is still very satisfying.