The Floating Light Bulb, Starring Beatrice Arthur, Jack Weston, Danny Aiello. Comedy by Woody Allen. Directed by Ulu Grosbard. "The Floating Light Bulb," at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, is a sad-funny play, a wistful but gritty comedy about the hopes and dreams that somehow sustain a household of contentious Brooklynites back in 1945. Under the quickening direction of Ulu Grosbard, a strong cast realizes the heartbreak as well as the humor and humanity of Woody Allen's latest work about the hope and despair of illusion.
The symbolic light bulb of the title comes straight from one of the more luminous manipulations in the magicians's bag of tricks. As the play opens, teen-age Paul Pollack (Brian Backer) is performing this particular sleight-of-hand feat in the narrow little bedroom at the left of the drab Canarsie apartment setting designed by Santo Loquasto. While Paul dreams of being a magician and constantly practices his craft, the bright but stuttering youth dreads the thought of public performance. Like his bratty kid brother, Steve (Eric Gurry), Paul plays hooky from school, to the distress of their mother, Enid Pollack (Beatrice Arthur).
Economic necessity, grudging tolerance, and a kind of shared desperation appear to be the principal forces holding the Pollack family together. Enid works in a hosiery shop but pins her financial hopes on a succession of unlikely ventures. Notwithstanding all her determined intentions, Enid is a nagging wife and an overbearing mother who usually succeeds in making a bad situation worse.
Partly because of his wife's obejections to his earlier jobs as taxi driver and bookmaker, husband Max (Danny Aiello) has wound up as a waiter. Now at the mercy of loan sharks due to his compulsive gambling, Max dreams of the big win that will free him.
Hoping against realistic hope, Enid arranges through a neighbor for Paul to be auditioned by Jerry Wexler (Jack Weston), a good hearted small-time agent still searching for "that million-dollar act." Although the audition is a foredoomed fiasco, Jerry's visit provides "The Floating Light Bulb" with its funniest and most touching scene.
Blending hilarity and pathos in a way that transcends description, Mr. Weston demonstrates his great comic prowess as he delivers Jerry's descriptions of some of his more successful clients, including a dog that sings "Little Sir Echo." Under his admiring but respectful attentions, Enid fleetingly recaptures the romance of which she has been starved.
The emotional delicacy and depth of the play enhanced the best scene of a not altogether satisfactory play. Yet it is in the strength of its character portrayals that the entertainment proves most appealing. In addition to her softer moments, Miss Arthur brings her seasoned comedic authority to the role of the immortal Jewish mother. While seeming more Italian- than Jewish-American, Mr. Aiello makes a substantial contribution as the undomesticated Max. Besides giving an appealingly Allenesque portrayal as Paul, Mr. Backer wins some added applause for his legerdemain.
The comedy begins and ends with the suspended light bulb floating in space. The playwright similarly leaves his characters approximately where he found them. As a genre play about obscure Americans clinging to improbable dreams, "The Floating Light Bulb" on occasion recalls works by dramatists as disparate as Odets, Miller, and Williams.
This is not to detract from Mr. Allen's own achievement. As his first stage work in 12 years, the rueful but affectionate period piece wins its welcome at the Vivian Beaumont. It may at times seem spasmodic and rough-hewn, but it is invariably tender hearted.