Relatively Speaking: a review

*published on Oct 28, 2011 in EDGE

To speak frankly, rather than relatively, I have to say that “Relatively Speaking” is a dreary, mostly unfunny evening of shtick. I welcome watching “Modern Family” on the telly more than shelling out many shekels for what often amounted to a pile of recycled Borscht belt humor.

Marlo Thomas and Lisa Emery in "George is Dead" by Elaine May, one of three short plays in "Relatively Speaking" (Source:Joan Marcus)

That said, there were some wonderful performances and moments when the audience, who I am sure came from Woody Allen’s extra callbacks, were in fact yukking it up. But I laugh often at the new sitcoms and I can be in my PJ’s, which I find adds to the hilarity. So why brave the beastly weather and hand over the big bucks?

I suppose the answer, as ever, comes to me in the form of amazement at the craft of acting, of standing up and offering yourself to a huge hall of strangers and convincing them you are someone else. This happened often in “Relatively Speaking”, but was quickly followed by my questioning, ’Is this best they can find for these talented actors’?

Let me lay out the three plays. The first in the troika, and by far my favorite, is Ethan Coen’s “The Talking Cure”. For those of you in comas for the last few years or enjoined from reading or seeing any movies by virtue of a bad divorce settlement, Coen is one in a set of brothers who made 15 movies like “Fargo”, “Blood Simple”, and most recently, “True Grit”.

Coen’s work is a quick clip of montages featuring prisoner Danny Hoch and shrink Jason Kravis. Let me take this moment to say the cast and director John Turturro all are bold-faced names; now let’s see if they can deliver. These scenes are funny and modern as Hoch, who is a master mimic, chides the doctor with the uncertainty of who is the mental patient and who is the doctor. Kravits nervously takes the bait every time.

The banter is entertaining enough, but then the magic of theater happens and the prison cell splits in half and center stage is occupied by a formal dining room where prisoner Hoch’s parents argue while his mother is pregnant with him.

Kudos to inspired designer Santo Loquasto for making this scene so pitch-perfect. Prisoner Larry’s parents argue over everything including if Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun were invited for dinner people would have said, “We are having the Hitlers over.” Let’s admit that Hitler jokes are a tough sell, especially to the audience in a Broadway house, but like Mel Brooks, Coen pulls it off. The stage is set for the next two plays to carry on with the fire of funny left smoldering when the first curtain drops.

But there it sits, like a lox, not getting the yuks back. Elaine May’s offering, “George Is Dead” was so painful, long and seriously unfunny that I wondered why they touted this evening as three One-Act Comedies in big letters right on the program cover and in all the press.

For me, this was a very sad piece. True, even Shakespeare makes merry with mechanical moments, but this was dour. The wonderful Marlo Thomas is an heiress whose husband George drops dead. She has noone in her life and so in the middle of the night, she rings the doorbell of her former nanny’s grown daughter, played with icy uncertainty by the wonderful not-seen-enough, Lisa Emory.

Thomas’ Doreen is a self-absorbed rich bitch who needs to be coddled by anyone from the caring class. She proclaims, “I am always stunned that people listen.” I think the correlative is, if you can pay for it you do not need to acquire any of the skills that the 99% has had to learn in order to survive.

With the Occupy Wall Street foment blocks to the south it is difficult to find humor in a woman besotted with the grief that her house is too large, her furs need storage, and finally that once again she will be taken care of by her former nanny. A grand, consoling Patricia O’Connell leaves her grown, hapless daughter once again toddling behind, wishing for her mother’s care, when that can only be bought by the rich. Are you laughing? Because for me, nothing is funnier than abandonment, emotional cruelty, and the rich winning the day.

After a sobering intermission is Woody Allen’s offering. I admit a prejudice against Mr. Allen’s work: in his 42 films to date, many of them depicting NYC, he rarely casts — let alone features — a person of color. Other than the help.

That said I strive to remain open, because I often find him funny. His play-ette “Honeymoon Motel” opens again schticky-funny; he had me laughing when the groom bangs the bride’s head carrying her into the tacky motel room, round bed and all. Through a series of quick back-and-forths, we learn that they are not the meet-cute newlyweds, in fact, a la “The Graduate”, the bride, Nina played sexy and stupid (and I mean that as a compliment) by Ari Graynor fled the alter to be with Jerry, Steve Guttenberg.

And so in comic unfurling we learn that Jerry is the stepfather of the intended groom. Very Woody Allen: older man with bad boundaries makes off with a woman much younger, not really available to him, but what the heck, it’s funny right?

The bride needs pizza before she can jump onto the round bed and that is the opening for the rest of the wedding party to knock on the door. The happy couple keeps answering the door thinking, this time it will be pizza.

The bride’s parents arrive, Julie Kavner (yes, Marge from “The Simpsons”), and it is hard not to hear Marge telling her husband, Mark Linn-Baker, who is perfectly fine, that she had an affair with their therapist and her boss. Would Marge do that?

The groom who was meant-to-be arrives, the rabbi comes in all enormous hands aflutter, unwittingly eulogizing everyone whose name he mentions. Richard Libertini as the rabbi was the one to whom I gravitated for the glue and humor in this scene, he was wonderful.

The shrink from the first play arrives; a best friend comes and stops by drawn by Jerry’s Smart Car in the parking lot. Finally, the stage is filled with nine white characters and the pizza arrives, brought by Danny Hoch, who to my amazement is playing the same character, although I know this actor is capable of 30 voices in as many seconds.

The Rabbi wants s sausage slice, and such are the jokes. The rest leave and the couple and pizza guy remain in the room. It turns out the pizza guy has all the wisdom. “If you wait too long in life your cheese gets hard.” Curtain.

I think it proves that if you wait too long, you can get plays produced on Broadway, based on the past and not on what we see now, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

I wish “Talking Cure” was the last play after intermission, then I would suggest a ticketless second act invasion, but it is the first and then you would have to muddle through the other two.

“Relatively Speaking: 3 One-Act Comedies” has an open-ended run at Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47 St. For info or tickets call 877-250-2929 or visit http://relativelyspeakingbroadway.com

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