Monday, November 28, 2011

"Relatively Speaking: 3 One-Act Comedies" - Batting About .500

Review by Judd Hollander

Woody Allen's Honeymoon Motel, the final segment of a trio of one-acts being presented on Broadway under the umbrella title of Relatively Speaking, show Allen at his best with one of the most hilarious works to hit Broadway in recent memory. As long as you have a pulse, it's sure bet you'll be holding your sides and roaring with glee almost from start to finish.

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince; the frogs in this instance being the two earlier plays in the production, it definitely being a case of things getting better as time goes on.

Things start off very wobbly, with Talking Cure by Ethan Coen, the weakest and least focused one-act of the bunch. Though the beginning of the show does hold a bit of promise; with a Doctor (Jason Kravits) having a session Larry (Danny Hoch), a patient in a mental hospital, the much taller Hoch towering over Kravits both in size and verbal wit. There's also a nice moment where Larry is describing a very specific usage of a packing tape dispenser, accompanied with hilarious pauses and imagery.

Sadly the piece never really goes anywhere, with the Doctor continually trying to get to the root of Larry's problems and Larry deflecting the Doctor's efforts at ever turn; Larry all the while tossing in moments of homespun philosophy, albeit with caveats (i.e. "everyone has problems"). Larry even suggests that he is actually the doctor and the Doctor is the patient in one exchange. However, without some kind of end point, this back and forth banter quickly becomes terribly repetitive and rather annoying. Things get even murkier with a flashback sequence involving Larry's parents (Allen Lewis Rickman, Katherine Borowitz), the idea supposedly being that they are responsible for shaping Larry into the man he is today. However there is no real emotional connection between these two sequences and the entire story sort of fizzles out, leaving one not at all interested in what may have happened to the characters. Also in the cast is Max Gordon Moore.

Up next is George is Dead, by Elaine May, which has a more concrete story to offer, but is somewhat lacking in the make up of one particular character and probably should have been expanded into a full-length piece to better flesh out the tale.

Carla (Lisa Emery) is leaving a telephone message for her husband Michael (Grant Shaud), with whom she had an argument, (something about family priorities-a running theme throughout this play), when Doreen (Marlo Thomas) arrives with the announcement that her husband, the title character, has died. Carla, it turns out, is the daughter of Doreen's childhood nanny (Patricia O'Connell) and, with nowhere else to go, Doreen finds herself turning to Carla for comfort in her time of sorrow.

It's not long before Doreen is revealed to be a rich, spoiled and pampered woman who in no time at all has Carla waiting on her hand and foot, from getting her tea to scraping the salt off some crackers while Doreen settles in for the night. Although Carla tries to muster up a word of protest now and again, she quickly allows herself to be talked into complying with Doreen's every request, Carla having a personality that seems to be part subservient, part needy and party martyr. Doreen is also unwilling (or unable) to face what happened to George and so Carla finds herself becoming Doreen's "assistant" (Carla's word) in order to handle the funeral arrangements.

George is Dead is a basically a play about patterns. Carla, who felt neglected by her own mother, who was always busy taking care of Doreen, now finds herself slipping into that same role at the risk of neglecting her own life and her life with her husband. There's a lot of potential in the script, but what's missing is a full sense of cohesiveness. The play could easily be a comedy, drama or a mixture of both, but it's kind of hard to see what May is going for at times. Also since Carla is for the most part a reactive character, we never get to see where she's coming from. (Unlike with Thomas, Shaud and O'Connell; the latter two staking out definite positions in their brief scenes.) In some ways Carla is a terminal victim of emotional abuse. Yet there is never any point in the play that lets the audience know just who she really is, a vital link which is sorely missed.

Thomas does very well as Doreen, the character at times so annoying one wants to shake some sense into her, yet at other times so helpless as to be the object of sorrow and pity. She's also quite refreshingly candid about her lack of common sense, tact, or ability to really care about anyone else. Certainly not a nice person to be around, Thomas is able to give life to Doreen and make her ultimately fascinating to watch, with the audience either wondering what she'll do next or waiting to see if she'll finally get her own comeuppance. Also in the cast are Allen Lewis Rickman and Max Gordon Moore.

As mentioned above, the highlight of Relatively Speaking is Woody Allen's deliciously funny Honeymoon Hotel. Taking place in the bridal suite of a tacky roadside motel, Jerry (Steve Guttenberg) and Nina (Ari Graynor), a deliriously happy couple (he clad in a tuxedo, she in a wedding dress), enter and prepare to spend a night of connubial bliss. However, long before that happens there is the first of many knocks at the door as it quickly becomes apparent all is not what it seems. Jerry and Nina didn't just get married. Rather, they ran off together as she was about to marry someone else. The actual intended groom being a young man by the name of Paul (Bill Army), who happens to be someone with whom Jerry has a very long standing rivalry.

Not only does Paul eventually arrive, but so do Jerry's wife Judy (Caroline Aaron), Nina's parents (Julie Kavner, Mark Linn-Baker), Jerry's friend Eddie (Grant Shaud), and Jerry's psychiatrist Dr. Brill (Jason Kravits). As well as the somewhat soused Rabbi Baumel (Richard Libertini in an absolutely hilarious and Tony Award-worthy turn), many of whom, while trying to make sense of what's going on between Jerry and Nina, end up airing their own dirty laundry; touching on subjects ranging marital indiscretions to the death of Judy's first husband. Other weighty matters mentioned include God, literature and pizza, (Danny Hoch appearing at one point as a pizza delivery boy), with trademark Woody Allen angst and dysfunction present throughout.

In addition to a mostly crackerjack script, Allen and director John Turturro have cast the play with a team of pros, each of whom deliver their lines in all seriousness, no matter how crazy the situation happens to be. Honeymoon Motel is classic Allen, with Jewish and family humor coming thick and fast, and while there is nothing particularly new about the piece, the work has a wonderful freshness about it thanks to the actors involved, all of whom are at the top of their game. It's also worth noting that the play has a sort of timeless quality and could easily have taken place in any number of recent decades, with only the tweaking of a few lines here and there.

Linn-Baker and Kavner are two of the standouts here, a longtime married couple (she a bit of a controlling, shrewish yenta, he somewhat of a henpecked husband) harboring years of pent-up resentment, hurling verbal brickbats at each other with razor sharp accuracy. Also taking center stage is Libertini's completely hysterical portrayal of the Rabbi, a man who introduces people as if he were giving their eulogy, and who manages to work in such topics as penis envy into his fumbling conversations, all to brilliant effect. This is also someone who can get gales of guffaws just by pointedly shaking his figures. He's kind of like an eccentric drunken uncle everyone humors while hoping he'll just sit down and be quiet. Yet he also manages to get in some philosophizing at times. ("God exists, he may have attention deficit disorder, but he's there.")

Guttenberg and Graynor work fine as the beleaguered couple just tying to find some happiness, though both are at least partially living in a dream world. Aaron is good as the so-called "wronged woman" and Shaud and Kravits both get in more than a few comical licks with their respective roles. Both actors (as well as Hoch) coming off much better here than in their earlier appearances in the production.

If here's a problem with Honeymoon Hotel, it would have to be the ending, which is tied up just a bit too neatly. Yet Allen and company carry it off nicely enough to make the final denouement more than acceptable, if not totally satisfying.

Turturro's direction is somewhat uneven during the production, depending on which specific one-act he's working on. His guidance is very good in Allen's work, less so in the others. Whether this is due to the strength or lack of it in the various scripts is questionable, yet Turturro must take at least part of the credit and share in some of the blame in how they all turned out.

Sets by Santo Loquasto, costumes by Donna Zakowska and lighting by Kenneth Posner are all okay, if nothing to really get excited about. Though all are able to give the different works the proper sense of place and atmosphere. Except for Talking Cure, which ultimately really doesn't connect at all.

Relatively Speaking (a title with more than one meaning) begins with a sputter, ends with a bang and picks up steam as it progresses. It's far from perfect, yet the strongest and funniest moments far outshine the glaring weaker ones.

Relatively Speaking
3 One-Act Comedies

Talking Cure
Written by Ethan Coen
Featuring: Jason Kravits (Doctor), Danny Hoch (Patient), Max Gordon Moore (Attendant), Allen Lewis Rickman (Father), Katherine Borowitz (Mother)

George Is Dead
Written by Elaine May
Featuring: Lisa Emery (Carla), Marlo Thomas (Doreen), Grant Shaud (Michael), Patricia O'Connell (Nanny), Allen Lewis Rickman (Funeral Director), Max Gordon Moore (Assistant Funeral Director)

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

Directed by John Turturro
Scenic Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Donna Zakowska
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Carl Casella
Casting: Cindy Tolan
Production Stage Manager: Ira Mont

Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street

Tickets: 877-250-2929 or

Running Time: Two Hours, with one intermission
Open Run

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