Relatively Speaking is the collective title for three one act plays by three who usually turn their talents toward the screen. Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen are three stagestruck screenwriters who drop in on us in theatre every now and then and bring their acerbit wit along with them.
In the order in which their three plays are offered, they are Talking Cure, a very short exercise that is set in a mental hospital, where we find a psychiatrist trying to get his patient to admit he’s got a problem. The problem is the patient thinks he might be the doctor, and in the second section of the play we’re introduced to his two pathological parents during dinner at home. This couple is locked in a lifelong battle of the sexes, which makes us feel so much better for their demented son, for they are far worse off than he. The play is really a sketch and it has some of Coen’s mordant wit sprinkled throughout; it is beautifully played by Jason Kravits and Danny Hoch, and played with pounding grit by Allen Lewis Rickman and Katherine Borowitz as the parents. Mr. Rickman is a recent recruit, having replaced Fred Melamed who did not see the father with the same eyes as the author. Mr. Lewis makes a total monster of the father, right up there with Ms. Borowitz’ mother. The playlet left me feeling empty and in need of a cool dash of water upon my face.
Within a minute or two, the curtain rose on Elaine May’s offering, George Is Dead. Ms. May, who created so many memorable characters during her years writing and performing with Mike Nichols, writes best when she writes for herself. She’s created in this play a lady named Doreen, she’s cast long absent and missed Marlo Thomas in the role, and one can hear Ms. May in every syllable.
Thomas plays a spoiled, immature, wealthy and powerful matron who comes to the home of her ex-nanny’s daughter in the middle of the night because she has no friends and she’s just been told that her husband George is dead after an auto crash. Doreen is a hopelessly dependant creature whose life is one long solipsistic mess. No scene exists for her unless she is at its center. Thomas manages somehow to make this frightening woman vulnerable, a kind of wealthy New York rich bitch cousin of Blanche DuBois. One doesn’t enjoy a dark comedy like this, but it does feature some wonderful dialogue, a star turn by Marlo Thomas playing a chic and haute coutoured version of Elaine May, fine acting by Lisa Emery, Patricia O’Connell and the supporting cast, which includes replacement Allen Lewis Rickman as a very funny funeral director. Instantly disposable, but a fast forty minutes of mirth.
Woody Allen gets the plumb second act spot. Hollywood Motel is a throwback to his nutty early days, when he was playing hapless bank robbers, nerds, and other forms of comical lowlifes. This is not the Woody Allen who’s been recently Anglicized and French Fried. This is pure farce, heavy on the Long Island accents, and involves the beginnings of a post-ceremony wedding night in which the hot-to-trot bride and groom check into a “magnificently tacky motel on a rainy night”. The thinner than air plot is substantial enough for a bedroom farce and all I can tell you is no one is quite who he seems to be. Parents, wives, husbands, ex-wives, another groom, even a rabbi all show up to fill the suite, to remind those of us lucky enough to have seen it, the dressing room scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night At The Opera.
It’s loaded with laughs, makes no sense, and the most cogent review of it came from the lady at my immediate left as she gathered her coat, hat, umbrella, shopping bag and mysterious wooden container: “It’s one one-liner after another, isn’t it?”
Steve Guttenberg, who has paid his dues on theLondonstage, in film and on the small screen, brings energy, zeal and a great sense of fun to the bridegroom. It’s he who starts the play, and he who drives the engine. He does both with brio and talent for farce Mark Linn-Baker and Julie Kavner as the bride’s parents were the only two other actors I recognized, and they were delightful. To see Ms. Kavner parading around in a light blue sarong type formal gown, trying very hard not to sound like Marge Simpson (to whom she has given voice through the years on “The Simpsons”) is pure joy. She gives new meaning to the art of mugging. To witness Mr. Linn-Baker shining in a tiny role by managing to hold a stare longer than most actors would dare, was almost enough to make this piece of fluff worthwhile.
To sum up, an evening of lots of succulent bones with not much meat on them.
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
Read more at RichardSeff.com
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