If ever you needed reminding that relatives are simply maddening, Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen are ready with a refresher.
Each has written a one-act play about families and their discontents that have been packaged together as "Relatively Speaking," which opened Thursday on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
The plays are sometimes poignant, sometimes sad and often hysterical. To enlist Goldilocks in the evaluation, the play by Coen seems a little underbaked and May's is a meandering downer, but Allen's is a romp that's just right. Director John Turturro has got great pacing and gets the most from his cast, but can't paper over the holes.
The cast of 15 is a motley bunch, including Caroline Aaron, Bill Army, Katherine Borowitz, Lisa Emery, Ari Graynor, Steve Guttenberg, Julie Kavner, Richard Libertini, Mark Linn-Baker, Fred Melamed, Patricia O'Connell, Grant Shaud and Marlo Thomas. Jason Kravits and Danny Hoch show up for two of the plays.
The first play, Cohen's "Talking Cure," is initially set in a mental institution, where a psychologist (Kravits) is trying to treat Larry, a former postal worker played by Hoch, but is making little headway since the patient has a form of logic that rivals the doctor's. After a few scenes of the two trying to get their points across, Cohen flashes back in time to the 1950s in order to introduce Larry's parents and perhaps explain why he's so argumentative - and now in a mental ward.
The mother (Borowitz) is pregnant with Larry and she and the father (Allen Lewis Rickman) argue about everything. Their conversation is peppered by references to Hitler and Heifetz, which listeners will note were also mentioned by Larry.
These two parts don't really mesh and Coen's play seems somewhat forced, reaching for meaning that isn't on the page. What at first seems like it will be a look at the complexity of sanity is dropped in favor of an exploration of paternal determinism.
The second play is "George Is Dead" by May and is benefited by a great turn by Thomas, who plays the clueless and very rich Doreen. Doreen has just learned her husband has died in an avalanche in Aspen, Colo., and, not knowing who to turn to, finds herself at the apartment of her old nanny's daughter, Carla played by Emery.
It's not a good time for this crisis, since Carla is fighting with her husband (Shaud) about not putting him first in her life. Doreen requests that Carla scrape off the salt crystals from her saltines, be at her beck and call, and make all the funeral arrangements.
"I don't have the depth to feel this bad," Doreen says.
Even though it's just one act, May doesn't seem to know how to end her play. It descends into the very unfunny funeral and the tone shifts. Doreen, who created such laughter at the beginning, is now left as a mute spectator as Carla fights with her husband. Carla's mother - the nanny - also appears too late to have much of an impact.
After an intermission, it's Allen's time and his frothy play "Honeymoon Motel" is a thankful farce, a showcase for Allen's dry, absurdist brand of humor. It is easily the most coherent of the three and boasts the biggest cast of 10 actors.
Set on a wedding night, the play grows more insane by the minute. Neither the groom (Guttenberg) nor the bride (Graynor) are what they seem. As they order pizza and sip martinis, the play reveals its crazy twists.
A tacky motel wedding suite becomes the place where a group of slightly crazed people collect: The groom's psychiatrist (Kravits, again), a tipsy rabbi (a wonderful Libertini), a pair of dysfunctional in-laws (Kavner and Linn-Baker), a friend (Shaud), an angry wife (Aaron), an even angrier fiance (Army) and a pizza delivery guy (Hoch, again), who turns out to be the voice of reason.
"The point is that from delivering pies and dealing with people's impatience, their hunger, their tipping habits, I've learned that life is short and there are no rules," says the pizza guy.
The scenic design by Santo Loquasto is effective: the suggestion of a cage and a dinner table for the first play; a cramped apartment for the second; and a lurid hotel room for the third. Especially nice is the back wall of family snapshots that are supposed to frame the show.
Squeezing three playwrights into a single show is dangerous business, particularly when they're all tacking the reality of relatives, but only Allen seems to have emerged the stronger for the effort.
If laughter is the best medicine, the all-star authors responsible for "Relatively Speaking," three one-act comedies about family foibles, might be sued for malpractice.
The limp show at stiff Broadway prices is especially disappointing since the acclaimed creators are Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen, a trio who know funny.
Too bad they show barely a passing acquaintance with it in this show.
"Talking Cure," the curtain-raiser by Coen concerns a shrink (Jason Kravits) and his patient, Larry (Danny Hoch), who are having an elliptical conversation.
It emerges that Larry had a run-in with an elderly woman involving a heavy tape dispenser, and a flashback to Larry's bickering parents (Allen Lewis Rickman and Katherine Borowitz) is tacked on as backstory.
"Cure" wants conjure grim humor a la "Fargo," but it thuds along without raising a single chuckle - or point.
May's "George Is Dead" begins promisingly, with a rich woman behaving badly, a theme she explored in her screenplay for "Heaven Can Wait."
Doreen (Marlo Thomas) is a self-absorbed socialite whose husband dies, leaving her totally unable to take care of herself. So she barges in on Carla (Lisa Emery), whose mother was Doreen's doting nanny.
Dressed in a pale pink dress, Thomas nails her role as a manipulative overgrown child who admits: "I don't have the depth to feel this bad." So far, so amusing. But things turn distastefully sour and ugly with the arrival of Carla's angry husband, Michael (Grant Shaud), and negligent mother (Patricia O'Connell).
It's as though May didn't know where to take the story, and the slackness in the writing is echoed in direction by John Turtorro, who stages all three works.
Doreen admits she never pays attention to what people say, noting "I'm always stunned that people listen to each others' stories."
But as Carla and Michael argue, Doreen hangs on every remark.
Why isn't she obliviously snoozing, or doing her nails or reading a magazine?
If the writer, director and actors aren't going to pay attention to details, why should we?
Last up, "Honeymoon Motel," in which Allen cooks up a Borscht Belt farce in a piece that could've been titled "Take the Honey and Run."
As it opens, middle-aged Jerry Spector (Steve Guttenberg) carries the much-younger Nina Roth (Ari Graynor) into a spectacularly tacky inn for newlyweds (Santo Loquasto's work is expertly cheesy).
I won't spoil the play's cleverest moment - but it explains why Jerry has no business being with Nina and why various loudmouthed relatives, a eulogy-happy rabbi and an insightful pizza deliveryman pile into the room and raise a ruckus.
It's heartening to see Allen use some of his favorite film actors, including Caroline Aaron, who plays Jerry's wife, and Julie Kavner, who is Nina's mother.
Old pals, great.
Old jokes, and there are plenty of 'em, not so much.
The new Broadway anthology “Relatively Speaking” is subtitled “3 One-Act Comedies,” and there’s some truth to that: It is indeed made up of a trio of short plays -- by heavy-hitters Woody Allen, Ethan Coen and Elaine May.
But “comedies” implies humor, wit and gags, and they’re in short supply in the show, flatly directed by John Turturro. Subpar at best, these efforts -- I use the term loosely, because it looks as if nobody tried very hard -- come nowhere near the authors’ best. This is an egregious case of selling your audience short.
Let’s deal with the worst first.
When it comes to the movies, Coen and Allen have been doing well lately -- the first with “True Grit,” the second with “Midnight in Paris.” But their pieces here, which bookend the show, are just lazy.
Coen’s opening trifle, “Talking Cure,” might have been dashed off between takes on a shoot. Larry (Danny Hoch), a burly inmate in a mental hospital, meets with his nebbish shrink (Jason Kravits).
“Somebody’s always the d - - k,” Larry says, explaining his philosophy of life -- though the big lug also knows about semantics and astronomer Johannes Kepler. We then move on to a flashback of his expectant mother and her husband. They scream a lot, but this adds little.
Recalling his ghastly “humor” pieces for The New Yorker, Allen’s “Honeymoon Motel” plays as if it spent decades in a freezer. Rest assured, though, that ticket prices very much belong to 2011.
Like a Jewish version of “Benny Hill,” this would-be-bawdy farce follows a young bride (Ari Graynor) and her love (Steve Guttenberg) into a cheesy suite. Somehow their families -- including Julie Kavner and Mark Linn-Baker -- track them down, and hilarity ensues. Or it would, if this were funny.
So we have to not grin and bear Lorena Bobbitt jokes and musty zingers like Kavner’s “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but it’s the times it’s not that you have to fake a headache.”
The filling in this stale sandwich of horrors is May’s “George Is Dead,” and it is indeed somewhat meatier.
Marlo Thomas plays Doreen, a rich Hamptons housewife who suddenly finds herself a widow and reaches out to her old nanny’s daughter, Carla (Lisa Emery). No, it doesn’t make sense, but go with it: May is the only one who milks something out of her premise.
Narcissistic, demanding and manipulatively rude, Doreen knows she’s shallow, and she’s OK with that. “What will I do?” she muses, “I don’t have the depth to feel this bad.”
It’s fun to watch this aging pampered brat use wide-eyed helplessness to boss around the fragile Carla, who’s pushed into scraping the salt off Doreen’s Saltines.
Still, you wonder why Carla puts up with it. You may also wonder why theatergoers aren’t rioting for a refund.
Mothers come in for some serious savaging in “Relatively Speaking,” a reasonably savory tasting platter of comedies by Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen that opened on Thursday night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
This will come as no surprise. Nagging, wheedling, needling, needy or demanding moms — often of the Jewish persuasion, it must be said — have been an endlessly fertile resource for comedy writers, the mother lode if you will permit a blunt pun. It is safe to assume that as long as women give birth, their beloved boys and girls will grow up to write bruising punch lines about them.
But few family members are spared in this enjoyable if lightweight diversion, loosely assembled around the idea that our nearest and dearest can do us wrong in infinitely inventive ways. Husbands and wives, aunts and uncles, stepfathers and even unofficial family members like the rabbi and the therapist take plenty of hits too.
Old-fashioned boulevard comedy — bright, easygoing fare that doesn’t require the deciphering of plummy or crummy British accents — has more or less evaporated from the Broadway marketplace since the heyday of Neil Simon. “Relatively Speaking” brings back this once-popular genre in manageable bite-size portions, provided by starry showbiz names who sometimes seem to be channeling Mr. Simon’s gag-driven style. These plays are not going to do anything much in the way of reputation burnishing for their three celebrated authors — and certainly none is required — but they are packed with nifty zingers and have been directed by John Turturro with a boisterous flair for socking home the borscht-belt humor.
Mr. Coen is, of course, a filmmaker more known for his pitch-dark dramas and comedies about all the bad things that can happen to mostly bad people, like “Fargo” and the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men.” He has also written a couple of evenings of short plays that were produced Off Broadway. “Talking Cure,” his contribution to “Relatively Speaking,” is a mordantly funny tug of war between Jerry, a man incarcerated in a mental hospital (Danny Hoch), and the therapist trying to treat him.
The recalcitrant Jerry, a post office worker played with glowering intensity by the excellent Mr. Hoch, best known for his virtuosic solo shows, resists attempts by the doctor (Jason Kravits) to engage in a discussion about the violent act that has landed him in an institution. With a deadpan smirk Jerry parries an opening question with the following: “I guess I’m hoping — could this be one of those things where it turns out I’m the doctor and you’re the mental patient?”
He sort of gets his wish. In a series of short scenes separated by blackouts the doctor becomes increasingly rattled as he tries to gain some sort of upper hand over his ostensible patient, who keeps rebuffing his earnest inquiries with sardonic gags. When Mr. Kravits’s nerve-rattled doctor explains how the “talking cure” of Freudian invention is supposed to work, Jerry counters with a question: “What if the illness is talking too much?” The play concludes, a little limply, with a flashback in which we see his parents (Allen Lewis Rickman and Katherine Borowitz) engaging in antagonistic shtick that suggests poor Jerry was doomed to a life of disappointment, with or without therapy, from the start.
Ms. May’s “George Is Dead” is, for most of its running time, a delicious study in the bliss of narcissism for those who can afford its more rarefied accoutrements, and the plague it can be to those in their orbit. Marlo Thomas plays a pampered princess named Doreen who comes clattering at the front door of her friend Carla’s New York apartment in the wee hours of the night to announce that her husband has just been killed.
In truth Carla, a thankless straight-woman role played with skill by the fine Lisa Emery, is not exactly an intimate. She’s merely the daughter of Doreen’s former nanny. Doreen hasn’t seen Carla in years, and keeps confusing the names of her current and former husbands. But then Doreen is the kind of woman who possesses handbags and shoes to match every outfit and yet can’t figure out whom to call in an emotional crisis. She probably would find the labor involved in making the phone call too taxing in any case.
Ms. Thomas is sublime as this fragrant but poisonous powder puff, whose flailing helplessness allows her to manipulate Carla into making all the funeral arrangements, even though her own marriage is in crisis. “Am I being too horribly demanding? I can never tell,” Doreen says innocently, and Ms. Thomas perfectly captures the obliviousness that is a byproduct of overweening ego. Unfortunately Ms. May’s sharp satirical touch softens, and the play begins to fizzle, when the focus shifts from Doreen’s dithering self-involvement and childish neediness to the dreary conflicts tearing at Carla’s marriage to Michael (Grant Shaud), a do-gooding schoolteacher in a terminal bad mood.
“Honeymoon Motel” finds Mr. Allen returning to his shtickier comedy roots. He is at his loosest — and sometimes lowest — but also his most firecracker funny. It’s as if Mr. Allen had stored up a trunk full of choice one-liners that he’s been cutting from screenplays or jotting down at random for years and has decided to unleash them all in this blizzard of broad farce set in a tacky love-nest motel room. (The Lorena Bobbitt jokes, at least, might have been left to wither on the page.)
It would be unfair to give away the play’s twisted premise, which provides one of the big belly laughs of the night. (This premise may also seem to reflect a chapter in Mr. Allen’s own past, which some may find distracting.) I can only say that the members of a Long Island wedding gone spectacularly wrong gather at the motel to trade accusations and recriminations over who did what to whom, spewing choicely worded insults at one another at head-spinning velocity.
The cast of characters includes the luscious young bride (Ari Graynor) and the mama’s boy groom (Bill Army), but most of the savagery is conducted by the older generation. Steve Guttenberg, as the groom’s stepfather, and Caroline Aaron as his wife, have at each other with the relish of a long-married couple free at last to let years of pent-up anger loose. (Although that gift of a bracelet inscribed with the loving words “Do not resuscitate” was a little passive-aggressive, no?)
Julie Kavner barks out acidic bon mots in her husky baritone as the mother of the bride, whose history of infidelity to her husband, played by Mark Linn-Baker, occasions many a barbed exchange. As a rabbi with a thirst for something stronger than Manischewitz, Richard Libertini rampages across the stage entertainingly, intoning eulogies at regular intervals for no apparent reason.
Rational behavior is in short supply throughout “Honeymoon Motel,” which grabs at anything and everything — waterboarding! Netflix! pogroms! — if it will serve for a good joke. Or even an old joke: Mr. Allen offers a variation on the classic Jewish joke about taste vs. portion size. The play consists, in essence, of a stage full of aggrieved characters braying verbal artillery at one another — it might remind you of the recent Republican debate — but the caliber of the kvetching remains relatively high, so the time passes quickly until the pizza-delivery guy arrives.
Played by Mr. Hoch, this unlikely character serves as Mr. Allen’s somewhat desperate deus ex machina, bearing a pie that’s half sausage and half pepperoni along with a few morsels of wisdom. “Life is short, and there are no rules,” he opines, which does not qualify as profound philosophical insight — even for a pizza-delivery guy — but proves an apt enough coda for Mr. Allen’s short and unruly but very funny play.
Marlo Thomas, daringly ludicrous as an aging spoiled princess in Baby Jane drag, curls up at a TV while theme songs from old TV shows ("I Love Lucy" and "Bewitched") define the age range of the target audience for Elaine May's "George Is Dead."
Hilarity is meant to ensue when Steve Guttenberg runs off with his stepson's luscious young bride at the altar in Woody Allen's "Honeymoon Motel," after which vulgarian Jewish wives make their annoyance known, annoyingly.
A prisoner, in session with the jailhouse shrink, blames his underachievements on his miserable mother's desire for him to be another Jascha Heifetz (the violinist who died almost a quarter century ago) in Ethan Coen's "Talking Cure."
One can kindly describe "Relatively Speaking," the umbrella title for these three minor playlets by major comedy writers, as a theatrical throwback. Unfortunately, throwbacks, if they are to get somewhere, need to have aim, momentum and a sense of direction.
For those keeping score, Allen's play has the most jokes. May's has the most heart. And Coen seems the most lost.
John Turturro, directing but not appearing, goes for the comedy-by-the-numbers style of mugging and hollering here. The cast of 15 -- huge for Broadway -- includes lots of America's old friends, including Julie Kavner, Grant Shaud and Mark Linn-Baker. But most have tiny cameo roles, suggesting more fun may be happening backstage than out front.
Thomas has a virtuosic lack of vanity as Doreen, the almost blissfully oblivious and grotesque new widow in "George Is Dead," a pouty monster with the insight to whine, "I don't have the depth to feel this bad." The always-excellent Lisa Emery is almost too poignant for the supposed humor as the oppressed grown daughter of Doreen's nanny.
"Honeymoon Motel" has an adorably tacky set (by Santo Loquasto) and builds to an almost giddy chaos by tossing 10 comedy experts into a pile of Borscht-belt characters with unpleasant subtexts. Richard Libertini, as a demented eulogy-spewing rabbi, deserves his own play.
Coen, who has created squeaky-dry and witty sketches of unrepentant humanity for the Atlantic Theater Company, kicks off the triptych with a heavy foot about the roots of disappointed lives.
Overall, as I often think when people around me are inexplicably laughing, I wish I were there.
"A happy family is but an earlier heaven," George Bernard Shaw once observed. Alas, Relatively Speaking: 3 One-Act Comedies reminds us that the opposite is also true.
Less intentionally, this collection of short plays, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre, proves that similar extremes can apply to theater. For these accounts of homegrown neuroses — by veteran wits Elaine May, Ethan Coen and Woody Allen— offer both disarming highs and disappointing lows.
May's George Is Dead, by far the most substantial work, casts Marlo Thomas as Doreen, an ungracefully aging heiress, and Lisa Emery as Carla, the daughter of her childhood nanny. When Doreen inexplicably turns up at Carla's tiny apartment one night with bad news, the two seem like total opposites — one a pampered narcissist who has never learned to care for herself, or to care about anyone else; the other a woman who has served, struggled and sacrificed for what little she has.
Yet this darkly funny, surprisingly moving play reveals that they share something common and tragic: a sense of disappointment with life. The tension between them — or rather, Carla's thinly veiled disgust and Doreen's apparent cluelessness — is tempered by this bond. As Carla scrambles to put the abruptly widowed Doreen's affairs in order - and endures the wrath of her own husband, an embittered academic played with scathing directness by Grant Shaud — the superb Emery makes her wry stoicism as affecting as the hurt underneath it.
Doreen's discontent is, as you would imagine, more repressed. Clad in a pink party dress that would embarrass Blanche du Bois, Thomas makes us laugh at her character's fussy-schoolgirl mannerisms; but her Doreen is ultimately more a pitiable figure than one of ridicule. John Turturro, who directs all three plays, guides both women with discretion, so that neither the humor nor the pathos seems overstated.
Turturro's work is similarly impressive in Coen's slight but entertaining Talking Cure. Presented just before Dead, as a sort of appetizer, Coen's work is more of a skit, a comic riff on psychoanalysis and inherited dysfunction. Danny Hoch and Jason Kravits deliver fine, sharp performances as, respectively, a beefy bully confined to a mental hospital and his nervous but resilient shrink. Katherine Borowitz and Allen Lewis Rickman turn up as the patient's parents in a sardonic coda.
Finally, and regrettably, there is Woody Allen's Honeymoon Motel, in which Steve Guttenberg and Ari Graynor play an unlikely couple whose unexpected marriage shocks all their relatives but will surprise none of Allen's fans. If only the same could be said for the dialogue, a soggy hash of stale jokes spewed seemingly at random by characters ranging from a shrewish wife to a philosophizing rabbi.
"Somewhere Noel Coward is turning over in his grave," a friend of the groom observes at one point, pretty much summing things up. Too bad that Relatively Speaking has to descend at the end.
If the three one-act plays performed under the omnibus title "Relatively Speaking" had been written by playwrights named Joe Smith, Jane Doe and Sid Jones, they'd probably still be making their way through the workshop pipeline at some not-for-profit (and not-too-daring) theater in the West Village. But since the scribes happen to be Woody Allen, Elaine May and Ethan Coen, these modestly amusing plays have landed on Broadway in an ungainly production helmed by (pause for one more big name) John Turturro.
Each play deals in one way or another with family matters, so there's a rationale for show's umbrella title. But in comic tone, style and sensibility, they couldn't be more different from one another -- a selling point for some auds, a head-scratcher for others.
Ethan Coen's "Talking Cure" is the darkest comedy on the bill. From all indications -- the institutional setting, the hot lights, the tight focus -- play appears to be a two-handed sketch about a contest of wills between Larry (Danny Hoch), an inmate in a mental institution, and the unnamed Doctor (Jason Kravits) who's trying to rehabilitate him through therapy.
Kravits captures the doctor's frustration when he leans in to chide Larry on his counter-productive behavior. ("When you assault the nurse, when you call her a dyke from hell, that negates the process.") And Koch is dead-funny (and dead-scary) when Larry dismisses the restoration project as a lost cause and asserts his identity as a homicidal loony.
But when it's time to put a button on this verbal ping-pong match, Coen can't come up with an organic resolution. He wisely ignores Larry's hopeful suggestion, "Could this be one of those things where it turns out I'm the doctor and you're the mental patient?" But the sidebar scene he pulls out of thin air to explain how Larry got to be the way he is effectively kills the comic mood.
Elaine May's satirical entry, "George Is Dead," doesn't play to form either, despite being a perfect piece of dramatic construction.
Carla (Lisa Emery) and her husband Michael (Grant Shaud) have a feud going over Carla's slavish devotion to her aged mother, called Nanny (Patricia O'Connell) because in years gone by she was the nanny of a spoiled little rich girl named Doreen. All grown up now, Doreen (Marlo Thomas) shows up on Carla's doorstep one night, all unhinged and looking for her old Nanny because her husband, George, has just died.
May's satirical scalpel cuts close to the bone on Doreen, a "selfish, brainless, heartless little slut" as Carla once described her. But scribe stops short of ripping out Doreen's heart, and the little slut is almost touching as she struggles with the first unselfish feelings she's ever felt in her life -- grief and love.
Looking appropriately grotesque in platinum wig and girlish pink sheath, Thomas is most winning when Doreen is at her most artificial. Working the other side of the street, Emery is more interesting to watch as she internalizes Carla's feelings, stealthily raising her resentment to the boiling point. But there's no chemistry between them, and with both thesps keeping their distance, the underlying sibling rivalry that drives the comedy fails to ignite.
"Honeymoon Motel" is Woody Allen's fond salute to the old jokes, old routines and good old days of comedy.
Built along the lines of a classic sex farce, the silly story opens in the honeymoon suite of a tacky motel where newlyweds Jerry Spector (Steve Guttenberg, who has it all under control) and Nina Roth (Ari Graynor, holding her own) have fled to escape their friends and relatives. But, in true farce tradition, the whole gang -- even the "over-enunciating" rabbi who performed the service -- find their way to this vulgar love nest, with its round bed and Jacuzzi. (Credit and/or blame for the over-the-top scenic design goes to Santo Loquasto.)
There's a reason for this traffic jam. It seems that Nina was supposed to marry Jerry's stepson, Paul (Bill Army), and everyone in the wedding party was aghast when the old man stole the bride from under the kid's nose.
Now, that's a good hook. But while it pulls disapproving (or envious) friends, relatives, and abandoned wives and lovers into the room, it can't make them funny -- not even with Julie Kavner, Mark Linn-Baker, Richard Libertini, and other veteran comic actors in the parts. Although Allen has dragged the corny borscht-belt routines out of the trunk in affectionate homage, bad jokes are still bad jokes.