‘Relatively Speaking,’ A Comedy about Relatives
By Isa Goldberg / Chief Theater Critic
The entertainment value of Broadway seems to have peaked with concert performances by Hugh Jackman, and Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin making the headlines. So far, the season is more style than substance. To that end, “Relatively Speaking,” a group of one-act plays, (the kind of fare that would fit more comfortably off Broadway), now arrives with top guns Woody Allen, Ethan Coen and Elaine May as the authors of three comedy sketches that are just a cut above borsht belt variety acts.
Coen’s one act, the first of the three, shoots right into the delicate subject of the psychotherapeutic relationship.
Doctor: There’s a term for what we’re doing.
Larry: Jerking off?
Doctor: It’s called the talking cure.
In “Talking Cure,” Danny Hoch (Larry) brings an easy albeit feverish quality to the ballsy and explosive postal worker confined to a mental institution for assaulting a customer. His act of transgression, the object of his psychiatrist’s (Jason Kravits’s) concern, leads to observations about Larry’s parents who slide on stage ensconced in their fancy dining room. Having waited too long for their guests to arrive, the couple begin bickering in a fashion to which they are all too obviously accustomed. He (Fred Melamed) compares the guests to the Hitlers. She (Katherine Borowitz) disparages him for his Hitler obsession, as she shrieks about the future of their son (as she’s going into labor.)
While the other two one-acts follow suit with comedy routines that depict acts of transgression and the underlying guilt that surrounds them, Coen’s is by far the most successful. His making fun of Hitler goes right to the banality of evil in everyday family relationships. In capsizing predictable situations, Coen’s “Talking Cure” embraces familiar terrain with intelligence and humor.
Unfortunately, “George is Dead,” the second one-act of the evening takes a thin and obvious premise, exacerbating the character’s motives until it becomes anxiety provoking to sit through. Here Marlo Thomas portrays the exceedingly wealthy, recently widowed wife who plants herself in the midst of her ex-nanny’s daughter’s marital strife. As is her wont, Lisa Emery delivers a fine tuned psychological portrayal of the middle-aged wife. But her performance is perhaps too earnest to serve Elaine May’s drawn out riff in which boundaries are blurred or simply violated. Here, transgression and guilt pivot around the seminal issues: marriage, mother daughter relationships and that great divider, class.
Where May’s piece strives for psychological nuance (no matter how unwelcome), Woody Allen’s “Honeymoon Motel” focuses on the grossest of human behaviors. Ari Graynor plays the young bride who runs off with her father in law (Steve Guttenberg) at the altar leaving the groom (Bill Army) and his mother (Caroline Aaron) in an ongoing fight for their own dominance. Apparently, this family feud has a history. Arriving at their roadside motel suite, the rabbi (Richard Libertini) delivers his sermon from the mount. (Pun intended.)
If the overacting in the first two one acts hasn’t hit you over the head yet, the flailing arms and loud, excessive behaviors of “Honeymoon Motel” will extinguish any sense of subtlety for which you may have hoped. Even Danny Hoch who is so fresh and naturally over the top in “Talking Cure” acts like a parody of himself as the pizza delivery guy in “Honeymoon.”
In that regard, John Turturro’s direction hits too hard at the comedy, which is already overstated. Santo Loquasto plants his footprint with three individual set designs that expose the reality behind these diverse situations.
“Relatively Speaking” at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (256 West 47th St) plays Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 877
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