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A CurtainUp Review
Relatively Speaking - 3 One-Act Comedies
Talking Cure by Ethan Coen; George is Dead by Elaine May, Honeymoon Motel by Woody Allen

"They don't make them like that any more!" You hear that nostalgic complaint all the time. For a large segment of long-time theater goers that means seering, lyrical dramas from the likes of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller; for another, and probably even larger group, that means shows with zero potential for heated post-theater discussions but which will generate enough laughs to drown out some of the zinger stuffed dialogue.

Relatively Speaking, a triptych one one act comedies, is here for anyone longing for at least an occasional return to the days when Neil Simon was the king of funny-funny-funny Broadway entertainment. Each play explores a different aspect of the complexities of familial relationships. The bookend pieces are strictly for laughs, the middle piece blends sadness with the funny stuff.

The three plays add up to two hours of entertainment that's a bit like having three desserts instead of a really substantial meal. Considering that the current news of the day is all dismal and worrisome that's not a bad thing, especially given the show's ticket selling assets: Two playwrights well known to long-time theater goers who know their way around snappy comedies. . . a stellar cast to land all the laugh lines. . . a director who keeps things bouncing along . . . a design team to dress it all up with enough nifty sets and costumes to give the productio the stamp Broadway worthiness.

"I have nothing to gain by your having a problem." — Doctor
If people donít have problems you donít eat. You invested a lot of money in people having problems. Medical school. You have to work it off. All those years in medical school, you have to beat it out of my ass. Or you lose.— Larry
Relatively Speaking
Danny Hoch in Talking Cure
Ethan Coen, probably best known as one of the film-making Coen Brothers, but in recent years donning a playwright's hat —his focus one-acters with a strong whiff of irony. While Coen's curtain raiser is insubstantial, it does resonate with his ability to tap into the ironic humor of a serious situation. That situation here is the confinement of Larry (Danny Hoch), a post office clerk who went postal in dealing with an annoying customer. The assault wasn't deadly but he is nevertheless confined to a mental hospital where we meet him during a series of "talking cure" sessions with a therapist (Jason Kravits).

It's a pleasure to see Hoch back on stage, especially since his Larry is this playlet's strongest asset. His responses to the Doctor's attempt to find out what caused him to shove the elderly woman at the post office and keep his anti-social behavior in check, are a hilarious reminder of one of R.D. Laing's anti-psychiatry maxims about insanity being " a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world."

It's when Hoch leaves center stage that Talking Cure fizzles. A surprise segue to a flashback featuring Katherine Borowitz and Allen Lewis Rickman seems an unnecessarily fancy illustration of the maxim about children being the symptoms of their parents' neuroses.

"George is dead. They called me from Aspen. He died doing a double snowplow on the intermediate hill. We're going to sue, of course but it's too fresh for me to think about that." — Doreen
George Is Dead-Relatively Speaking
Marlo Thomas & Lisa Emery in George is Dead
Unlike its sketchy predecessor, Elaine May's contribution to Relatively Speaking comes closer to being a real play. Marlo Thomas's Doreen is hilariously shticky enough to be one of the characters in the closing piece by Woody Allen. But funny as Thomas's spoiled newly minted widow is, Ms. May takes the set-up of someone being faced with an unexpected, uninvited and unwanted visitor from her past to a deeper more poignant level. That's not to say that May doesn't milk her plot driving device for every possible comic twist. (At the height of her TV days with Mike Nichols she played her share of Doreen types).

Doreen's reluctant hostess is As Carla (Lisa Emery), the daughter of Doreen's long-ago nanny. Emery is fine as Doreen's reluctant hostess. Though she's too young for the part she she manages to bring a nicely understated comic touch to her dealings with Doreen. The comments with which she manages to occasionally interrupt Doreen's non-stop, self-absorbed chatter clarifiy the dynamic between the two women -- Doreen, a monstrous spoiled brat, and Carla still smoldering with resentment about the affection and attention her mother lavished on Doreen. Grant Shaud and Patricia O'Connell also make brief appearance as Carla's husband and mother, but this is Thomas's show piece. Since the humor is what connects the three separately authored plays, the more profound aspect of George's death is kept off stage until the last few minutes -- though quite touching, it comes too late to be completely convincing.

"Jerry, what were you thinking?" — Ed

"That Iím the luckiest guy in the world. Iím thinking sheís radiant and sweet and makes a ravishing bride."— Jerry

"Yes but youíre leaving out one key thing. Youíre not the groom."— Ed

"I admit, itís an awkward detail."— Jerry
Relatively Speaking
Ari Graynor and Steve Guttenberg in Honeymoon Motel
Woody Allen winds up Relatively Speaking with a laugh-a-minute Borscht Belt-ish farce that takes dysfunction to a new level as it hauls out every Jewish stereotype — including a Rabbi (Richard Libertini) who's more than likely to offend quite a few audience members. The honeymoon suite in the titular motel (a masterpiece of bad taste by Santo Loquasto) is the setting for a pileup of relatives of the honeymooners who are not the couple who was supposed to tie the knot. Nina Roth (Ari Graynor) is the right bride, but as indicated by the above quoted opening exchange, the groom is her at the alter change-of-mind-under-the-chuppe choice. That's Jerry Spector (Steve Guttenberg), the stepfather of the groom whose name, Paul Jessup (Bill Army) appeared on the wedding invitation.

True to expectations this May-December couple never gets to consummate their passion in the jacuzzi that's part of the motel suite's accouterments. For one thing Nina, having spotted a pizza parlor on the way to the motel, wants pizza before passion. What's more, a steady stream of the left in the lurch wedding guests as well as the Rabbi (Richard Libertini), ignore the Do Not Disturb Sign to have their say. The recriminations and confrontations are not only directed at the inappropriately shacked up couple but detour into past grievances like Nina's father lingering resentment about is wife Fay's (Julie Kavner) adulteries. (Yes that plural is correct.)

The action in this honeymoon suite is much like a horrendous pile-ups of cars in a highway accidents -- only the cars here are all these angry, confused and ueber dysfunctional people. Considering Allen's several references to Lorena Bobbett, the woman who famously took a pair of scissors to her cheating mate's you know what, indicates that he's confident that most of his audience is old enough to remember this as well as his own much publicized marital scandal. Hauling out all these very imperfect people feels a little like Allen setting the record straight and saying "So what's so terrible about marrying my stepdaughter? Temple going, ordinary citizens misbehave too!"

Director Turturro ably steers this shtick-fest's large cast around that increasingly crowded motel room. My favorite among the obnoxiously funny characters is Fay Roth as played with deadpan humor and dead-on timing by Julie Kavner. Danny Hoch is once again terrific. His Sal Buonacotti (the pizza guy) is definitely the smartest guy in the room and deserves to have the last word.

Relatively Speaking
Directed by John Turturro
Playwrights: Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen.
Cast: Katherine Borowitz, Jason Kravits, Richard Libertini, Mark Linn-Baker, Patricia O’Connell, Caroline Aaron, Bill Army, Lisa Emery, Ari Graynor, Steve Guttenberg, Danny Hoch, Julie Kavner, Allen Lewis Rickman (replacing the still listed Fred Melamed), Grant Shaud, Marlo Thomas. Scenic design: Santo Loquasto
Costume design: Donna Zakowska Lighting design: Kenneth Posner
Sound design: Carl Casella
Stage Manager: Ira Mott
All review photos by Joan Marcus
Brooks Atkinson Theatre 256 West 47 Street
From 9/20/11; opening 10/20/11-- to an early grave, 1/29/12
Talking Cure by Ethan Coen Cast: Danny Hoch (Larry), Katherine Borowitz (Mother), Jason Kravits (Doctor), Allen Lewis Rickman (Father).

George is Dead by Elaine May Cast: Lisa Emery (Carla), Patricia O’Connell (Nanny), Grant Shaud (Michael), Marlo Thomas (Doreen), Funeral Director (Allen Lewis Rickman, Max Gordon Moore (Assistant Funer Director)

Honeymoon Motel by Woody Allen
Cast: Caroline Aaron (Judy Spector), Bill Army (Paul Jessup), Mark Linn-Baker (Sam Roth), Ari Graynor (Nina Roth), Steve Guttenberg (Jerry Spector), Julie Kavner (Fay Roth), Jason Kravits (Dr. Brill), Richard Libertini (Rabbi Baumel), Grant Shaud (Eddie)

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 16th press opening
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