By: Patrick Christiano
Fish in the Dark, a new comedy by Larry David about a death in the family, opened at the Cort Theater where Mr. David is also making his Broadway debut as an actor, reportedly at the producer’s request, in a production directed by Tony winner Anna D. Shapiro. The cast of 18 includes Broadway veterans Jayne Houdyshell, Jerry Adler, Ben Shenkman, Lewis J. Stadlen, Rosie Perez, Rita Wilson, and many other talented actors who surround the television writer Larry David, who co-created the immensely successful television series "Seinfeld."
With an advance ticket sales approaching 15 million dollars, the critics can be damned. Fish in the Dark is a commercial success, and from audience reaction at the performance I attended, they seemed pretty much pleased. Yes, pretty much pleased, except maybe the two people, who sat on the aisle directly in front of us. They left at intermission giving us a better view of Mr. David’s rather awkward performance in a play he describes as a dark comedy.
Not a big television subscriber, never a fan of "Seinfeld," or a devotee of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the other hit show Mr. David created and stars in, I wished I could have left with them. Fish in the Dark starring Larry David is so bad that the irony of the situation becomes funny. It’s so bad, it’s funny! The plot centers on how badly people can often behave when the head of the household is about to die, not exactly new material.
The hospital setting in the opening scene sounds ripe with promise. Jerry Adler plays Sidney, the head of the family, who is dying. His two sons are in the waiting room just outside his room while various members of the family and household come to visit. When the doctor asks the two brothers, if their father wants to be hooked up to a ventilator, we get what looks like an interesting story. Unfortunately, the playwright abandons that theme about 20 minutes into the evening and meanders all over the place in what feels like an attempt to fill up 2 hours with witty comments, reactions and situations without delving beneath the surface or making any attempt to create real people or situations. The evening is more like an elaborately detailed skit juggling a dozen balls with a cast of 18, than a story of unfolding action.
Mr. David plays Norman Drexel, a character supposedly similar to the one he portrays on Curb Your Enthusiasm," but now instead of being a writer/producer he is a urinal salesman. Norman is a self centered, ill tempered, shallow nag, who is continually exasperated by the random absurdities of everyday life. Embroiled in a power struggle with his brother, Arthur played by Ben Shenkman, Norman blows everything out of proportion in often petty ways.
The cliff hanger in the first act when Sydney dies asking one of the boys to take care of their mother Gloria, a deliciously marvelous Jayne Houdyshell, is a riot. But which brother did he mean Norman or Arthur? Everyone seems to recall the moment differently and neither brother wants Gloria for valid reasons. From there the plot meanders through complications when the maid reveals that she and Sidney had a secret affair in addition to a love child, Diego, now almost grown and ready for college. The playwright keeps attempting to top himself with outlandish situations, while the two brothers squabble relentlessly over everything. I will spare you the details of the ghost of Sydney in the guise of Diego.
On television Mr. David is an acclaimed master of structure weaving several storylines each week into a compact 30-minute feast of funny moments. Filling a two-act play is decidedly a different challenge. Mr. David approaches that by making everything bigger without truly connecting the dots. And in Anna D. Shapiro’s production the actors are all performing in different styles around Mr. David’s self absorbed vacuum.
On stage Mr. David has no organic idea how to use his instrument, which has really been tailored for television. His whiny voice is difficult to hear, and he often plants himself just off center stage flaying his arms around in a feigned attempt at emotion. He does manage to move and talk on several occasions, but still without any real depth of feeling.
With a talented cast of 17 surrounding him, and the sublime Jayne Houdyshell in a pivotal role, we can almost forget how bad Mr. David is, but then he keeps reminding us with his awkward posture even when he isn’t speaking. He is a tall extremely skinny bald man with a big puff of grey hair in the back and on the sides. Just standing there, he appears to be leaning backwards like a bean pole about to topple over away from the action, instead of into it, upstaging everyone in a futile attempt to flee the scene.
Mr. David does work hard and he appears most earnest. I wonder if he has any clue how silly he looks pretending to act. The story behind the play’s unique title revolves around a dinner where Sidney almost choked on some fish bones because it was too dark to see the food
Fish in the Dark is now playing at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street between Broadway & Sixth Avenue. For tickets call 212-239-6200.
Photos: Joan Marcus