Relatively Speaking: Theater Review
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Ethan Coen, Elaine May, Woody Allen
Caroline Aaron, Lisa Emery, Ari Graynor, Steve Guttenberg, Danny Hoch, Julie Kavner, Jason Kravits, Mark Linn-Baker, Grant Shaud, Marlo Thomas
Woody Allen, Ethan Coen and Elaine May penned segments for this trio of one-act comedies, directed by John Turturro, with a cast that includes Ari Graynor, Steve Guttenberg, Julie Kavner and Marlo Thomas.
Bucking the prevailing Broadway trend, it’s not the actors but the playwrights who are the draw in Relatively Speaking. Tenuously connected by the theme of family, these three one-act comedies by Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen yield some chuckles, even if John Turturro’s flat-footed direction often works against them. But the featherweight package makes a flimsy case for the star power of writers.
Strongest entry is May’s George is Dead, which has been kicking around since 2006 as a vehicle tailored for Marlo Thomas. Wearing mutton-dressed-as-lamb couture and a frosted blond wig, she plays an expensively preserved, dippy socialite and monster of self-absorption named Doreen. Following the death of her husband in a skiing accident, she turns up in crisis mode at the home of her former nanny’s married daughter, Carla (Lisa Emery).
Grief is less an issue than confusion for Doreen, who is unequipped to make any kind of decision. “I feel awful,” she whines. “What will I do? I don’t have the depth to feel this bad.”
There’s sturdy support from Emery, balancing resentment and forbearance, and from Patricia O’Connell as Carla’s mother, who neglected her own daughter to tend to Doreen’s bottomless pit of needs. But it’s Thomas’ self-parodying turn that gives the comedy a kick, making Doreen blithely insensitive yet somehow poignant in her helplessness. She’s like a Real Housewife with vulnerability and a good joke writer. Watching her tune out Carla’s marital discord by getting lost in vintage sitcoms can’t help but raise a smile.
Maintaining the whimsical mood if not the freshness or imagination of his bounce-back hit this year, Midnight in Paris, Allen’s Honeymoon Motel is a shticky Borscht Belt farce.
“The heart wants what it wants,” Allen famously said in a 1992 Time Magazine interview about his romantic defection from Mia Farrow to her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. “There’s no logic to those things.” Almost 20 years later, Allen trots out that same sentiment in a scenario with uncomfortable similarities.
Jerry (Steve Guttenberg) and Nina (Ari Graynor) check into the bridal suite of a tacky motel, but a stream of intruders disrupt their bliss. It soon emerges that Jerry wasn’t the groom and that the actual wedding was derailed. The fallout over Nina’s change of heart at the altar provokes varying degrees of outrage, anger and philosophical reflection among the brides’ parents (Julie Kavner, Mark Linn-Baker), Jerry’s wife (Caroline Aaron), the best man (Grant Shaud), the Rabbi (Richard Libertini), Jerry’s shrink (Jason Kravits), a pizza delivery guy (Danny Hoch) and the intended groom (Bill Army).
There are moments to savor from the actors, and nobody will dispute Allen’s facility with a one-liner, even if many of them here are shamelessly hoary. Guttenberg and Graynor provide a serenely daffy center to the maelstrom of bickering and chaos, Kavner’s croaky line readings could make the phone book funny, and Aaron is the queen of sour cynicism.
But Turturro is particularly out of his depth in this entry. Farce needs buoyancy, breathlessness and physical momentum to achieve liftoff. The director merely ushers the ten-member cast onto Santo Loquasto’s crowded set and then doesn’t know what to do with them beyond stand and deliver.
That mismatch of director and material is also evident in the lineup’s first and most insubstantial entry, Coen’s Talking Cure. Multiple sessions between a therapist (Kravits) and his patient (Hoch) in a high-security psych facility trace the latter’s violent behavior to his quarrelsome parents (Katherine Borowitz, Allen Lewis Rickman), whose dueling obsessions are Heifetz and Hitler. Oy.
This might have been fodder for a funny throwaway joke in one of Allen’s screen comedies of the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. But Coen lacks the required lightness of touch. Despite attempts to beef up the scenario by musing on semantics and contrasting perceptions of mental illness, these 25 pointless minutes land with a thud.
Coen’s film credentials might lead audiences to assume that his input would bring some edge to a mystifying enterprise that feels like an antiquated throwback to the days when Neil Simon comedies ruled Broadway. But Talking Cure is the least satisfying item on a stale menu.
Venue: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Caroline Aaron, Bill Army, Katherine Borowitz, Lisa Emery, Ari Graynor, Steve Guttenberg, Danny Hoch, Julie Kavner, Jason Kravits, Richard Libertini, Mark Linn-Baker, Patricia O’Connell, Alan Lewis Rickman, Grant Shaud, Marlo Thomas
Playwrights: Ethan Coen, Elaine May, Woody Allen
Director: John Turturro
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Donna Zakowska
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Carl Casella
Presented by Julian Schlossberg, Letty Aronson, Edward Walson, LeRoy Schecter, Tom Sherak, Daveed D. Frazier, Roy Furman