By Desson Howe

March 11, 1988

If Woody Allen had been given a take-home on Chekhov during his ill-fated days at NYU, he might well have come up with "September," his latest.

And they still would have asked him to leave.

Allen makes clumsy pretense of such plays as "The Seagull"; the droppings are then tossed to an "American Playhouse" cast, which includes Mia Farrow, Elaine Stritch, Sam Waterston and Denholm Elliott. It's basically the same menu offered in most of Allen's recent films (and especially in "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" and "Hannah and Those Other Actresses"): a heavy plate of inner struggles and mullings on the randomness of existence, with flirtatious shenanigans on the side.

Farrow, Allen's little Max von Sydow in bloomers, plays Lane, a woman still struggling to forget a traumatic childhood incident. Referred to as The Shooting, it involved her fiery, impulsive mother (Stritch) and Mother's gangster lover. The most interesting aspect of the conflict, itself an inferior rehash of the Mary Beth Hurt-Geraldine Page relationship in "Interiors," is the battle between Farrow's pallid, pouting performance and Stritch's rendition of a bull in a china shop.

Helping shatter the rest of the marked-up Woody Allen crockery are Dianne Wiest as Lane's dippy Left-Bank-ophile friend Stephanie and the tiresomely self-absorbed Waterston as Peter, a tiresomely self-absorbed writer. Lane's mad for Peter, but Peter's mad for Stephanie, and Stephanie likes Peter but is married and is Lane's friend . . .

Meanwhile, Jack Warden (as a physicist and Stritch's fiance') and Elliott, as an older neighbor who has the hots for Lane (irrelevantly), must cool their veteran heels, waiting for their turns onscreen. Partly by being talented, partly by being absent from most of the film, these two manage to avoid most of the movie's embarrassing howlers -- although it's Warden's lot, as the physicist, to deliver the randomness-of-the-universe speech.

Unlike the universe, the howlers are quite regular. "My face is flushed, and my heart is pounding," Wiest tells Waterston, when he tries to seduce her. Writer Waterston constantly complains of feeling "empty." Lane isn't too obsessed with her problems to get in a dilettante's fluster about "the new Kurosawa film." Stritch waxes unpleasant about liver spots and diaphragms -- the sad remnants of Allen's self-described "earlier, funny" films. And all this through a camera that never leaves the house.

In Vermont, no one can hear you scream.

With creative carte blanche from his producers Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe and a sycophantic troupe of actors and collaborators at his feet, Allen is also trapped in a cloistered and destructive family situation. He should get out more.

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