Larry David has come to the Broadway community with a trunk full of awards and pots of money from the lush Hollywood hills, where “Seinfeld” which he co-created with Jerry Seinfeld, and “Curb your Enthusiasm” which he organized on his own, have had long runs on the air. They have turned him into a national treasure right up there with Noman Lear, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner and so many other gifted writers and producers who have proven over the years to have their ears on what the public wants to hear, and laugh at. Almost all of them have given us plays and in some cases books to musicals, but in each case they’ve tasted success in the live theatre, then retreated to the far more lucrative world of sitcoms, light hearted films and easy, breezy movie love stories.Mr. Simon found a proper home on Broadway, but that happened when he was comparatively young.
Now, at 67, Larry David has joined them and it looks like he too will have a great success with this, his first play, whimsically titled Fish In The Dark, ( why do I cynically think it was at least an homage to Mr. Simon’s first smash, the equally whimsically titled Barefoot In The Park)? in which he’s reluctantly playing the leading role himself. I put it that way because he admitted, in several recent interviews, that he had no intention of appearing. To quote him in one of them, “That was the furthest thing from my mind. I had to be talked into this. I didn’t write the play to be in it. I wrote it to sit back and enjoy it.”
But he hadn’t reckoned with Scott Rudin, one of the few über producers of film and theatre. When word got around that a play was on the horizon, Rudin sent a note that said simply, “I heard you wrote a play. Hello?” Believing that meant Rudin was interested in producing it, a meeting was arranged. That’s how the big guys operate. “He’s an extremely pursuasive man”, says David. “He’s ruined my life.”
Well, not quite, but he certainly has complicated it. For now, with David starring, and a featured cast of 20 zany character actors floating in and out to tell his story, he’s got himself into a smash hit. So the one unanswered question has to be: Can he sustain a long run in an exhausting role, and if not, who’s going to replace him as Norman Drexel (a man so like Larry David) it’s going to be a little like It’s Only A Play (another current box office hit that stars Nathan Lane) without Nathan Lane. So Mr. David is going to have to spend his days off this summer at one of our Eastern beaches, for California is a long commute to 48th Street at the Cort Theatre, where his play is now ensconced.
He was inspired to write it when he saw his friend Nora Ephron’s play Lucky Guy, the one that lured Tom Hanks to Broadway for the first time. Again, Mr. David in his own words: “I had never thought that would be something I’d like to, or could do.”
All we can do is wish him well. For he’s right — he is a first time playwright, and that means the best we can say about the work is that he gives new meaning to the word “promising.” There’s no question his play is full of laughs, but it is peopled by over a dozen completely one dimensional characters who remain where they began until minutes before the final curtain, by which time all or most have seen the light, and spread some joy.
Norman’s mother Gloria is a sourpuss, looks possibly five years younger than her son, but Jayne Houdyshell is a first rate actress, and she lands every line she’s been given. Lewis J. Stadlen, who has brightened many a comedy all the way back to Minnie’s Boys, is Norman’s brother Stewie, and though it’s a smaller role than Norman, Mr. Stadlen enters late with a flourish that announces :”Norman may have more lines, but I am the leading character!”. And he plays it that way straight through, to our immense enjoyment.
So it goes with Mary Louise Burke as a ditzy friend, and the wonderful Rosie Perez who figures prominently and hilariously in a surprising plot twist in the second act, the one that includes Jake Cannavale who plays her son. Rita Wilson has her moments as Norman’s wife Brenda, as does Ben Shenkman as his brother Arthur, though he looks at least 20 years younger than Mr. David, which is odd. Oh, and there is delightful Jerry Adler, once a prominent Company Manager (an offstage job) who came to prominence in “The Sopranos” and is now an excellent character actor with a keen eye and ear for comedy, both of which he uses expertly as Grandpa Drexel, first alive, then dead.
The audience is so tuned in to Larry David and his unique way of playing Norman (call him Norman, call him Larry, you know what you’re going to get, and you get it) that they sound more like one of those dreadful laugh tracks, the sort where every raised eyebrow, every movement of an eyeball, every lifted arm, and of course every boffo delivery of a deliberate laugh line (and there are many) bring roars of laughter from the packed house. But unlike the canned kind, these laughs are earned, and may be the most effective tools to use in order to keep Larry David up and at ’em on a stage for the next year or three.
Fish in the Dark is at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, NYC.
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