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No Neil Simon character ever exclaimed, “You fucked my mother?!” But in countless other ways, Larry David‘s first venture into Broadway playwriting, Fish in the Dark, is a spirited throwback to that once hugely popular gagmeister’s patented specialty: classic boulevard comedy molded to fit the American Jewish family. It’s also pure sitcom, energized by David’s customary serrated edges and willfully abrasive characters. While the writer-star is playing a minor variation on the persona he honed over eight seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm — and before that, via his alter ego George Costanza on nine seasons of Seinfeld — that seems to be exactly what the fans are craving.
The play started previews Feb. 2 with a massive $13.5 million advance and has regularly since been grossing north of $1 million a week, smashing the house record at the Cort Theatre. It’s a stretch to imagine it having much of a life without David in the self-styled central role of Norman Drexel. But given the stellar business on Broadway, where it runs in a limited engagement through June 7, it would be no surprise if David decided to take the play to Los Angeles. Either way, it already looks like a bona fide hit, no matter where the reviews land.
Director Anna D. Shapiro (a Tony winner for August: Osage County) stages the comedy with an unapologetic endorsement of its retro roots. She keeps her foot firmly on the accelerator without flooring it, and capably steers the busy traffic of her extravagant 18-member ensemble (no double-casting here). The end-of-scene blackouts might as well be commercial breaks, accompanied by doodling jazz riffs from David Yazbek that could almost have been lifted from a Simon movie. (California Suite comes to mind.) Set designer Todd Rosenthal wraps the proscenium arch in a death certificate, an irreverent reminder of the not-so-solemn event that draws the extended Drexel family together and then has them at one another’s throats.
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The about-to-be-dear-departed is Norman’s 85-year-old father Sidney (Jerry Adler). He’s receiving visitors offstage at his deathbed as the play opens, while everyone congregates in the waiting room of a California hospital. Norman and his wife Brenda (Rita Wilson) are the first to arrive, joined by his divorced brother Arthur (Ben Shenkman), a cynical attorney who raises eyebrows by bringing shapely notary Michelle (Jenn Lyon) as his date. Next up is Sidney’s bossy wife, Gloria (Jayne Houdyshell), whose sorrow over her impending widowhood doesn’t come close to masking her aggressive sourness.
Also converging on the scene is Norman’s emotional housekeeper, Fabiana (Rosie Perez), who formerly worked for Sidney and Gloria; Natalie (Molly Ranson), the actress daughter of Norman and Brenda, in character for her upcoming role in My Fair Lady; her boyfriend, Greg (Jonny Orsini); Sidney’s dithery sister, Rose (Marylouise Burke) and her ingratiating husband, Harry (Kenneth Tigar); and the patient’s other sibling, Stewie (Lewis J. Stadlen), a brash loudmouth with the delivery of a vaudeville comic.
While David adheres to an old-fashioned Broadway model, he also lards the comedy with enough of his trademark brittle edge to prevent it from becoming too quaint. His liking for uncomfortable situations and annoying characters who are unskilled in diplomacy yields steady laughs throughout. From the evasiveness of Norman and Arthur as they shrug off a doctor’s question about whether to put Sidney on a ventilator, to their agreement that a low-cost casket is the way to go, it’s clear that both sons are cut from the same cloth. But then so is pretty much everyone onstage.
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The action is driven primarily by Sidney’s deathbed wish that Gloria not be left alone to grieve in their big house, which prompts a standoff between Norman and Arthur over who has to take her in. But as in the television comedies that made David a household name, the humor springs less from the plot mechanics than the obsessively scrutinized minutiae, the tangential conversational detours, the inappropriate confessions and awkward behavior. Despite being stretched beyond the usual half-hour format, the material remains in the classic Larry David mold, such as a scene in which Norman displays his petty jealousy when his eulogy is overshadowed by the one delivered by his Gandhi-quoting 14-year-old niece (Rachel Resheff). David even throws in a Curb Your Enthusiasm catchphrase (“pretty good”) in a harmless bit of fan pandering.
There’s also something disarming about the way the playwright embraces some truly hoary old-school gag material — characters fainting from shock, suffering sex-induced strokes or receiving “visitations” from the dead. It’s not exactly groundbreaking theater, but it all hangs together, nowhere more so than when the marvelous Houdyshell is in the mix.
Down to the smallest roles, this is a deluxe cast, and it’s a hoot to watch veterans like Burke, Adler and the hilariously acidic Stadlen do their thing, even with stock characters. In what could have been a throwaway bimbo part, Lyon is dignified perfection, and Jake Cannavale (son of Bobby Cannavale and Jenny Lumet) makes an appealing Broadway debut as Fabiana’s son, roped into Norman’s schemes with unforeseen consequences.
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Shenkman makes Arthur’s supercilious self-centeredness a neat match for Norman’s, and Perez walks a funny line between long-suffering devotion and blunt opportunism. In a role that’s virtually a duplicate of Cheryl Hines‘ on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Wilson makes a delightful “straight man” to David’s Norman, and Brenda’s curt shorthand with him suggests not only years of chafing but frazzled affection too.
David has never been an actor so much as an exaggerated version of himself, and that’s exactly what’s called for in a performance played in knowing complicity with the audience. His exasperated eyerolls, appalled double-takes and broadly physicalized reactions of disbelief or mock atonement are all essential parts of a shtick that fits him like a glove, and his public eats it up.
Cast: Larry David, Rita Wilson, Rosie Perez, Ben Shenkman, Lewis J. Stadlen, Jayne Houdyshell, Jake Cannavale, Marylouise Burke, Jerry Adler, Jenn Lyon, Jonny Orsini, Molly Ranson, Maria Elena Ramirez, Rachel Resheff, Joel Rooks, Jeff Still, Kenneth Tigar, Richard Topol
Director: Anna D. Shapiro
Playwright: Larry David
Set designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Music: David Yazbek
Sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Executive producers: Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnston
Presented by Scott Rudin, Lloyd Braun, Eli Bush, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Roy Furman, Jon B. Platt, Ruth Hendel, The Shubert Organization, Catherine & Fred Adler, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott Delman, Jean Doumanian, Sonia Friedman, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Heni Koenigsberg, Daryl Roth, True Love Productions
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