That a happy surprise Woody Allen's new TV version of his 1966 play Don't Drink The Water proves to be. This slapstick farce about a New Jersey family held captive in the American embassy in Cold War Russia is certainly the least likely made-for-television film project since, oh, Wild Palms, I suppose. Clearly, it's only because of Woody Allen's prestige that this time capsule of a play has been transformed into 1994 prime-time fare. But it's only because of Woody Allen's skill that this comparative antique has become a zippy, exhilarating comedy.
Allen, who wrote and directed the TV adaptation, stars as Walter Hollander, a Newark caterer proud to be the first guy to ''make the bridegroom out of potato salad.'' Walter, his wife (The Simpsons' Julie Kavner), and his daughter (Blossom's Mayim Bialik) are vacationing in Russia (''Six thousand dollars for three weeks of uninterrupted diarrhea,'' notes Walter) when they are mistaken for spies. Hoping to find help at the American embassy, the Hollanders encounter instead an office filled with bumblers and headed up by an insecure idiot, played by Michael J. Fox in his first television role since leaving Family Ties.
Don't Drink the Water, Allen's first play, ran for more than a year on Broadway, starring the great Lou Jacobi. In 1969, without Allen's involvement, Water was made into an unfunny bomb of a theatrical film starring a miscast Jackie Gleason as Walter. One reason the magnificent Gleason wasn't any good in Water was because Allen had written the part in his own, stand-up-comic voice; Gleason's trademark bombast messed up the rhythm of Allen's verbally intricate jokes. In the new Don't Drink the Water, Allen, as might be expected, delivers his own lines with breathless assurance. But he has also aged into a very funny actor, and in playing a harried middle-aged family man, Allen uses everything he has including his prominent bald spot to great comic effect. His Walter is no mere victim: He's a cranky, defiant victim.
One of the pleasures of this Don't Drink the Water is the way its auteur ignores the conventions of current television. Instead of updating his play to make things easier for the slacker generation to follow, he just uses a narrator to set up the era. And instead of populating the production with the latest hot stars, Allen opts for idiosyncratic, nostalgic, yet entirely appropriate casting. The narrator, for example, is Ed Herlihy, whose burlap voice will warm the hearts of baby boomers who remember his hearty tones on the old Kraft Television Theatre show. Allen has taken Dom DeLuise out of mothballs, and he delivers an awfully amusing performance as a priest who moonlights as a magician. In smaller roles, veteran character actors Austin Pendleton, Josef Sommer, and Edward Herrmann nail their lines like the seasoned pros they are. (This is not to slight the younger players: Both Fox and Bialik are charmingly silly as they fumble their way toward love.)
If the material is a throwback to the barrage of one-liners that characterized such early Allen movies as Take the Money and Run and Bananas, the technique is state-of-the-art Woody: Water has been shot in the same shaky-camera, improvised-looking manner of Husbands and Wives. One reason Don't Drink the Water isn't quite as funny now as it was three decades ago is that Allen's way of constructing a joke has become so familiar, having been copied by countless others. When Walter glances at his wife and mutters, ''One look at those varicose veins, they'll think we're smuggling road maps,'' you're more likely to smile at Allen's deftness than to laugh out loud. But there's immense pleasure to be taken from that craft, and from the novelty of seeing Allen giving a first-rate, uncompromising performance on the small screen. B+