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Relatively Speaking: Each Family, Tortured in Its Own Way Article From The New York Times

Relatively Speaking: Each Family, Tortured in Its Own Way Article From The New York Times

Oct 20, 2011

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.