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Monday, 31 October 2011 22:42

Broadway Review: RELATIVELY SPEAKING

Written by
Marlow Thomas and Lisa Emery (r) Marlow Thomas and Lisa Emery (r) Photo: Joan Marcus

Relatively Speaking is three one-act plays involving some form of familial entanglement between crazy relatives, crazier relatives and crazy “almost” relatives.  The through line chosen to string these three one-acts into a single cogent evening of theatre is weak at best.  There are lots of funny lines but these characters are about as deep as a kiddie pool.

The evening has been directed by John Turturro who has done a fine job getting the timing down for the laughs and preventing any traffic jams in the farcical third act (at one point I counted nine actors on stage.)  The cast is a veritable who’s-who of “I know that face (or voice, in one case)” actors.
They are Caroline Aaron, Bill Army, Katherine Borowitz, Lisa Emery, Ari Graynor, Steve Guttenberg, Danny Hoch, Julie Kavner, Jason Kravits, Richard Libertini, Mark Linn-Baker, Max Gordon Moore, Patricia O’Connell, Allen Lewis Rickman, Grant Shaud, and Marlo Thomas.  

In the first act, Talking Cure, by Ethan Coen, a doctor (Kravitz) visits his patient (Hochman) in a mental hospital.  The patient flusters the doctor by flipping the tables on him.  He may be a large oaf but he’s articulate.  When he opens his mouth he completely negates his physical presence.  Hochman, with his putty-like face, is fun to watch as he contorts it to match the twist he puts on the doctor’s thesis.  For his part, Kravitz is perfect as the flustered doctor.  He opens one of the scenes leaning back and bouncing off the chain-link walls of a holding cell with his arms crossed in utter frustration.  After the doctor explains to the patient “the talking cure” and how one can simply solve a problem by talking through it, the patient replies, “What if the illness is, talking too much?” Ba-dum-TSH!  That’s what we’re in for in this evening of largely borscht belt comedy.

Coen’s play has a second half that only slightly connects to the first half of the play.  It takes place over a dinner table between a father (Rickman) and pregnant mother (Borowitz).  The second half initially seems like a nonsequitor until you realize that the baby in the woman’s stomach is Larry, our mental patient in the previous half of the piece.  In a telling sign of the father’s concern for Larry he refers to the baby in his wife’s stomach as “that thing.”  In this contentious argument even Hitler and Hoeffitz (also brought up in the first half of the piece) are brought into the argument.  It ends up being a completely illogical and purposeless argument that does nothing but imply what might possibly be wrong with the grown son we see in the first half of the play.  Talking Cure is the weakest and most disjointed of the evening’s three mini plays.

The second piece of the first half of the evening is Elaine May’s George is Dead, the most pulled-together of the three pieces.  In it, Marlo Thomas is Doreen, a spoiled, child-like and childish, recently widowed woman whose pink party dress would be perfectly in character for Baby Jane Hudson (“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”) and Blanche Devereaux (“The Golden Girls”).  She has shown up on the doorstep of her former nanny’s daughter, Carla (Emery).  Carla has her own troubles at the moment.  It’s late and her husband Michael  (Shaud, again) still hasn’t come home.  They’ve had a fight over her lack of attention to him and this isn't helping.

Doreen has spent her life going from being taken care of by her nanny to being taken care of by her husband.  She has never had to face any kind of reality.  When asked to confront her husbands accidental skiing death and plan the funeral, she replies “I don’t have the depth to feel this bad.”  Carla resentfully goes about planning for Doreen’s husband’s funeral.  Emery gives a wonderful performance as Carla.  She is a veritable pressure-cooker.  Thomas gives the best performance of the evening.  She is fabulous as this hateful character, or as Carla puts it, a “selfish, brainless, heartless, little slut.”  Unfortunately, that’s about as harsh as we ever see Carla get, despite hoping for more.

George is Dead dissembles at the end with the entrance of Nanny (O’Connell in a thankless role).  The ending of this piece is equivalent to opening a half used liter of soda, you start with a burst of air that makes you think you will be rewarded with a bubbly beverage but what you wind up with is just sickly sweet and flat, in other words, disappointing.  The piece ends with George’s funeral and a weepy Doreen.  Not terribly satisfying, I’m afraid.

After intermission, we have Woody Allen’s farce-like addition to this trio, Honeymoon Motel.  A newlywed couple, Jerry and Nina (Guttenburgh and Graynor), checks into a hotel's garish honeymoon suite (wonderfully rendered by scenic designer Santo Loquasto.)  Unfortunately, Jerry was not the man that Nina intended to marry, it was his step-son Paul (Army).  Before long, everyone from the wedding is in the suite throwing barbs.  There's Jerry's best friend Eddie (Shaud, again), Jerry's wife Judy (Aaron), the bride's parents, Fay and Sam (Kavner and Linn-Baker), the "over enunciating" Rabbi (Libertini), and Jerry's psychiatrist (Kravits, again).  The group throw's around modestly humorous one-liners that it's hard to imagine haven't already been included in some form or another in one of Mr. Allen's many films.  There's even a bad Lorena Bobbitt joke.

What will get the audiences attention is the ethically questionable relationship. At the end of the play, Sal, a pizza delivery boy sums up and articulates the feelings I can only imagine Allen found himself uttering after the relationship with his step-daughter came to light.  “For whatever combination of miraculous reasons she and Jerry have fallen in love and while it defies conventional logic or science or religion, it’s yet a reality. My advice is to accept it, go with the flow, try not to be embittered and move on with life.”

All in all, this is a disjointed evening that, were it not for the stature of its writers, might never have seen the light of day.

View full production credits on IBDB.com.

Last modified on Monday, 31 October 2011 22:54