It was 16 years ago that Woody Allen and Elaine May teamed up with a third playwright (then it was David Mamet) to create an evening of one acts vaguely related by theme. The title then was Death Defying Acts. The title now is Relatively Speaking, and playwright #3 is Ethan Coen. And this time the event is on Broadway, and populated by a cast of 16, including a number of stars and featured supporting players—Marlo Thomas, Steve Gutenberg, Mark-Linn Baker, Lisa Emery, Julie Kavner, Richard Libertini—who do not double roles (nobody triples), which makes the evening something of a “party” event, because the cast could be easily reduced and most of the performers are veterans of plays by the authors. It’s also, to a degree, something of a quaint one. By which I mean, the authors are not really stretching themselves. Or operating much outside of the eras that defined their respective heydays (notwithstanding that the plays superficially take place in the present day). Which is a hard thesis to demonstrate in a print review, as these short plays are also short stories, and to reveal much more than the premise is to enter the land of spoilers, which I make it a policy to do as little as possible.
Ethan Coen’s Talking Cure is the opening and the shortest. It spends the bulk of its time showing us bits of consecutive sessions between a patient, professional but increasingly exasperated prison psychologist (Jason Kravits) and his patient, a dese-dem-and-dose type violent criminal who has a turn of mind that is paradoxically full of borrowed and recontextualized literary, classic philosophy and pop-psychology allusions. In the end, it’s kind of a shaggy dog story with an out-of-left field reveal (essentially the punch line) provided by two additional characters (Allen Lewis Rickman and Katherine Borowitz). It’s the kind of loose-cannon, free-associative seeming humor that marks Mr. Coen’s short plays, and its seeming likewise like a throwback to an era before Mr. Coen’s is specifically accounted for in the structure.
Ms. May’s play, George is Dead, takes place mostly in a New York apartment on the night when middle aged Carla (Lisa Emery) gets a sudden, unexpected visit from Doreen (Marlo Thomas) the friend-since-childhood from Hell, a needy woman who has never really grown up, having always had everything done for her, suddenly confronted with the death of her husband in a foreign country. But as we see, Carla has her own issues in what turns out to be a bittersweet thesis about family, responsibility and priorities—and as such, it is right out of the un-patented Elaine May wheelhouse, which has a penchant for characters who are as lonely together as apart. What enables the throwback here to exist, just barely, in the present, is that Doreen’s pathology prevents her from dealing with anything too new, that would alter her condition of pampered obliviousness: among other things, she’s afraid of her own ringing cell phone, lest its caller present her with news or a problem to be resolved.
Mr. Allen’s play, Honeymoon Motel, takes place where the title says it does, in a cheap and tawdry one, its honeymoon suite. All I can tell you about this one act is that it opens with a happy couple—middle-aged man (Steve Gutenberg), younger woman (Ari Graynor) fresh from a wedding, bursting giddily into the room in eager anticipation of consummation. I guess what isn’t a spoiler, because the Playbill cast page makes it self-evident, is that other members of the wedding party drop in unannounced to deal with the central problem (not to be revealed here, but one that may well make you think, Well of course Woody Allen would write this play, once it’s outed…fairly early at that, for it provides the premise). For the sake of a review, all you really need to know is that Mr. Allen’s stock in trade here is a collection of very familiar archetypes and even some very familiar jokes. Tone- and style-wise, it feels very much like a product of the mid-late ‘60s through the ‘70s and makes not even a token effort to be anything other (or deeper) than screwball. And taking it as such, it’s imperfectly fine, but one wishes that the director had been harder on Allen, to weed out the weaker jokes and tighten up the structure.
Said director is John Tuturro, and if he hasn’t asserted the iron will and merciless polish of a Mike Nichols, he nonetheless understands, along with his cast, the precise nuances of playing contemporary comedy; there’s no one who misses a delivery, mis-times a line or even an inflection.
All this considered, Relatively Speaking isn’t any kind of “must see” theatre. It very much is what it is. A party, hosted and populated by people who clearly amuse each other a great deal. You don’t have to be there. But it’s not such a horrible idea to accept the invitation, either…
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