Written by Woody Allen, Ethan Coen and Elaine May
Directed by John Turturro
Location: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY
Set Designer: Santo Loquasto, Lighting: Kenneth Posner, Costumes: Donna Zakowska, Sound Design: Carl Casella, Casting: Cindy Tolan
Starring Caroline Aaron, Bill Army, Katherine Borowitz, Lisa Emery, Ari Graynor, Steve Guttenberg, Danny Hoch, Julie Kavner, Jason Kravits, Richard Libertini, Mark Linn-Baker, Fred Melamed, Patricia O’Connell, Grant Shaud, Marlo Thomas
Given the A-list talent attached, and the multiple awards collected by all three of its authors, it comes as something of a surprise that Relatively Speaking is only relatively solid. There are inspired moments in this anthology of one acts, and certainly there are some fine performances here. But only one of the three dark comedies truly fulfills its promise.
As the title indicates, the three one acts that make up the show each explore the theme of (mostly dysfunctional) family dynamics. Ethan Coen’s Talking Cure tackles the topic by travelling back in time from a psych ward inmate’s troubled present to his prenatal past. It’s a fitting structure for a play about the therapeutic process, and there is plenty of dramatic potential in the play’s premise. Unfortunately Cure lacks a sense of urgency, and most of what the audience learns about Larry (Danny Hoch) has already been revealed by the time the twist ending arrives.
The first three scenes deal with Larry’s relationship with the Doctor (Jason Kravits) assigned to his case. Larry, the Doctor learns, has disappointed his mother by becoming a postal worker and amateur boxer rather than the Heifetz-level genius for whom she’d hoped. The resulting emotional scars may be the reason for the random act of violence that got him in trouble. Larry exhibits little faith in psychotherapy, and uses verbal games to control the sessions as he might attempt to control his opponent in the ring. The Doctor isn’t easily provoked, but neither does he vary much from the standard therapeutic script or try very hard to dismantle Larry’s defenses. Coen is wise to steer clear of the instant-catharsis clichés that often burden dramas about psychology. But he has also failed to find some alternative way of raising the dramatic stakes. As a result, despite a tight rapport between Hoch and Kravits, there is little theatrical momentum in the therapy scenes.
The flashback scene offers a bit more intensity. A bickering couple, (Katherine Borowitz and Allen Lewis Rickman) are dressed up and expecting company. They are also expecting Larry, any minute now from the looks of things. It’s easy to see that there’s very little love in this house, a fact made more chilling by the audience’s knowledge of adult Larry’s fate. Here again, though, there’s a static quality the dialogue, as the trading of barbs between husband and wife becomes repetitious and largely results in a stalemate. Although Coen (perhaps from years of filmmaking) understands the power of juxtaposing one piece of time against another, he would needs to add more flesh to his characters to get a real emotional payoff out of his narrative device.
George is Dead, the most moving and fully realized of the pieces, takes a more straightforward approach to the tangled relationship between past and present. As the play begins, Carla Kerns (Lisa Emery) paces around her small apartment, fretting over the state of her marriage. After visiting her mother in Queens, she has failed to get back to Manhattan in time to attend her husband’s speech at Amnesty International. He hasn’t called, and Carla fears his anger may be more than their relationship can bear.
About the last thing she needs right now is a surprise visit from Doreen Whittlesy (Marlo Thomas), a wealthy ditz whose husband has just passed away. Their connection is an odd one: many years ago Carla‘s mother was Doreen‘s nanny. Adult Doreen, accustomed to being served, has a sweet disposition, but keeps piling ridiculous demands on unprepared Carla. Playwright Elaine May wrings a good deal of humor out of the contrast between Doreen’s entitled Upper East Side attitude and Carla’s working class resignation. But ultimately Doreen’s innocence proves oddly touching. The product of a privileged childhood and marriages to prosperous men, her feet have never touched the ground. She has no clue how to hang up her own coat, much less make funeral arrangements or even to grieve.
Carla accommodates her guest, but inside seethes with a kind of surrogate sibling rivalry. As a child, she watched as her mother lavished attention on her ward, but had little energy left for nurturing her own children. Clearly Carla has had a hard time with intimacy ever since, as evidenced by her marriage to the hypocritical Tom (Grant Shaud), who opposes dictatorships overseas but behaves like a tyrant in his own home. Ultimately neither of the women can mourn their losses — until another, more powerful figure from the past comes to restore order.
Like a miniature full length play, George provides its cast with strong character arcs and May’s dialogue rings true even in the play’s more farcical beats. Thomas handles Doreen’s transformation from chipper princess to grieving widow with sensitivity and verve, while Emery potently embodies the suppressed rage behind Carla’s accommodating behavior. They are aided by Shaud and Patricia O’Connell in their supporting parts.
In Woody Allen’s Honeymoon Motel, young bride Nina Roth (Ari Graynor) enters a gaudy roadside inn with not-so-young novelist Jerry Spector (Steve Guttenberg). They’re excited to get away from all the wedding hoopla and take pleasure in simple joys like pizza and tacky furniture. Obviously, this is no typical pair of newlyweds. In fact, as it is soon revealed, they aren’t a couple at all. Nina was betrothed to Jerry’s stepson, but has run off with Jerry in an impulsive moment.
The opening beats of Motel are handled with deft comic timing by Guttenberg and Graynor, which intensifies with the arrival of Jerry’s friend Eddie (Grant Shaud). Eddie vainly attempts to talk some sense into his pal, but by now an unstoppable floodgate has been unleashed. Soon the small motel room is filled with injured parties, including Jerry’s wife Judy (Caroline Aaron), his shrink Dr. Brill (Jason Kravits), Nina’s parents (Mark Linn-Baker and Julie Kavner), vodka-infused Rabbi Baumel (Richard Libertini), pizza delivery man Sal Buonacotti (Danny Hoch) and eventually the jilted groom himself (Bill Army). Sadly, the crisp comedic momentum begins to bog down with the arrival of so many characters.
Though its setup would seem to have the makings of a fine farce, Motel lacks one of the key ingredients. Traditionally farce is driven by one or more characters’ intense desire to attain something. The more desperate the need, the more the audience is prepared to believe in the lunacy of the characters’ tactics. In Woody Allen’s world, no one seems to want anything deeply. Even Jerry seems more hot-for-young-tail than he is truly in love with Nina. Despite the cast’s best efforts, the chorus of self-absorbed relations seems less interested in putting things right than in assigning blame and acting put-upon. There are bright spots, of course, as Allen can always be relied upon to get a few good one-liners across. Shaud’s deadpan Eddie provides a welcome antidote to all the whining. Likewise Sal, whose advice turns out to be more sage than anything put forth by the rabbi or the therapist, is expertly played by Hoch.
While the unevenness of the Relatively Speaking cannot be overlooked, at least its diversity shows off the versatile talents of director John Turturro and an inventive design team (Santo Loquasto sets, Kenneth Posner lighting, Donna Zakowska costumes). Rather than remain locked in a style, the creative team endows each world with its own rhythms, colors, concept and style in keeping with the individual text. If Turturro continues directing on Broadway, it will be interesting to see how his sensibility develops.