Comedies, without musical interludes, are just not that common on Broadway.
Sure, there have been some recent revivals -- notably "La Bete," "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "Born Yesterday" -- and one-person shows such as "Ghetto Klown" and "Colin Quinn: Long Story Short," but new comedies, where no one dances, no one sings and we hang on wordplay, are pretty rare.
There's a reason. It's really hard to be funny.
But the three names behind "Relatively Speaking" -- Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen, each of whom wrote original one-act plays for the show -- pull people into the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
It's a fun night, and the comedies improve with each one. Coen's "Talking Cure" is about a mailman ( Danny Hoch) who went postal and his subsequent sessions with a psychiatrist ( Jason Kravits).
It's this one, in particular, where John Turturro's direction is most obvious, and not in a good way. Hoch has the subtle delivery of a vaudevillian about to pitch a pie, all but elbowing the audience with each line.
When the action switches to the mailman's parents -- and Katherine Borowitz is terrific -- it's too abrupt.
The second comedy, May's "George is Dead," is beautifully written. Marlo Thomas as Doreen, a shallow, helpless, impossibly rich and just widowed dingbat is perfect.
She shows up at the shabby apartment of Carla ( Lisa Emery), who is the daughter of her beloved nanny. Doreen is a woman somewhere between 55 and death, trying to look 30.
Carla has had a fight with her husband, who stays out though it's pretty late.
"How did it happen on the night my husband dies I have no one to turn to but you?" Doreen asks Carla. She continues to be condescending, demanding and ridiculous yet there's a charm to her, though everyone knows how incredibly manipulative she is.
Doreen's shocked she feels sadness at her husband's death "I don't have the depth to feel this bad," she says.
Carla, raised to serve, helps Doreen. She offers her bourbon-laced tea, but Doreen also wants food -- perhaps a little brie or Stilton. Carla gives her individually wrapped American cheese slices and saltines, from which Carla asks her to scrape the salt.
Both women are great, especially as Carla tries to explain to Doreen why she must make arrangements for her husband's body to be flown home, and for the funeral. The play takes an odd turn when Grant Shaud as Carla's very angry and self-righteous husband storms home.
It makes sense, but at that moment, "George is Dead" goes from a comedy to a drama.
The final chapter of the evening is Allen's, a farce called "Honeymoon Motel." Steve Guttenberg has a blast as Jerry Spector, a middle-aged, not terribly successful writer who grabs his stepson's bride, Nina ( Ari Graynor), at the altar and runs off with her to a cheesy motel.
Once they get to the tacky room and try to start their honeymoon night, eight others join them. Shaud, in this play, is Eddie, a pal, who tries to talk sense into them.
"Paul's not my son," Jerry offers as way of explanation as to why a 50-something man finds it acceptable to abscond with the woman who was just about to become his daughter-in-law. "I never laid eyes on the kid until he was 16."
Jerry asks if his wife, Judy, the incomparable Caroline Aaron, is upset. Eddie says, "Let's say she's concerned."
Judy blasts into the room and greets her husband with, "You rotten, degenerate, psycho scumbag."
And they're off and running. Now there are four people in the honeymoon suite and the crowd swells as the bride's parents, Fay and Sam ( Julie Kavner and Mark Linn-Baker) arrive. Soon, they're squabbling over their own marriage, which includes her sleeping with their marriage counselor.
Naturally Rabbi Blumenthal ( Richard Libertini) must follow the traveling wedding party. The character is completely over the top and keeps eulogizing the living. Finally the jilted groom, Paul ( Bill Army), completes the picture.
Everyone fights, but it's the pizza deliveryman, Sal Buonacotti (Hoch again and with the same tiresome delivery), who has the wisdom.
This has jokes you know are coming, but so what? Could the first play, in particular, be much funnier? Absolutely. Do the three comedies work together as one evening? Not completely. Is it still a great night out? Yes.
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus
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