If the three one-act plays performed under the omnibus title “Relatively Speaking” had been written by playwrights named Joe Smith, Jane Doe and Sid Jones, they’d probably still be making their way through the workshop pipeline at some not-for-profit (and not-too-daring) theater in the West Village. But since the scribes happen to be Woody Allen, Elaine May and Ethan Coen, these modestly amusing plays have landed on Broadway in an ungainly production helmed by (pause for one more big name) John Turturro.
Each play deals in one way or another with family matters, so there’s a rationale for show’s umbrella title. But in comic tone, style and sensibility, they couldn’t be more different from one another — a selling point for some auds, a head-scratcher for others.
Ethan Coen’s “Talking Cure” is the darkest comedy on the bill. From all indications — the institutional setting, the hot lights, the tight focus — play appears to be a two-handed sketch about a contest of wills between Larry (Danny Hoch), an inmate in a mental institution, and the unnamed Doctor (Jason Kravits) who’s trying to rehabilitate him through therapy.
Kravits captures the doctor’s frustration when he leans in to chide Larry on his counter-productive behavior. (“When you assault the nurse, when you call her a dyke from hell, that negates the process.”) And Koch is dead-funny (and dead-scary) when Larry dismisses the restoration project as a lost cause and asserts his identity as a homicidal loony.
But when it’s time to put a button on this verbal ping-pong match, Coen can’t come up with an organic resolution. He wisely ignores Larry’s hopeful suggestion, “Could this be one of those things where it turns out I’m the doctor and you’re the mental patient?” But the sidebar scene he pulls out of thin air to explain how Larry got to be the way he is effectively kills the comic mood.
Elaine May’s satirical entry, “George Is Dead,” doesn’t play to form either, despite being a perfect piece of dramatic construction.
Carla (Lisa Emery) and her husband Michael (Grant Shaud) have a feud going over Carla’s slavish devotion to her aged mother, called Nanny (Patricia O’Connell) because in years gone by she was the nanny of a spoiled little rich girl named Doreen. All grown up now, Doreen (Marlo Thomas) shows up on Carla’s doorstep one night, all unhinged and looking for her old Nanny because her husband, George, has just died.
May’s satirical scalpel cuts close to the bone on Doreen, a “selfish, brainless, heartless little slut” as Carla once described her. But scribe stops short of ripping out Doreen’s heart, and the little slut is almost touching as she struggles with the first unselfish feelings she’s ever felt in her life — grief and love.
Looking appropriately grotesque in platinum wig and girlish pink sheath, Thomas is most winning when Doreen is at her most artificial. Working the other side of the street, Emery is more interesting to watch as she internalizes Carla’s feelings, stealthily raising her resentment to the boiling point. But there’s no chemistry between them, and with both thesps keeping their distance, the underlying sibling rivalry that drives the comedy fails to ignite.
“Honeymoon Motel” is Woody Allen’s fond salute to the old jokes, old routines and good old days of comedy.
Built along the lines of a classic sex farce, the silly story opens in the honeymoon suite of a tacky motel where newlyweds Jerry Spector (Steve Guttenberg, who has it all under control) and Nina Roth (Ari Graynor, holding her own) have fled to escape their friends and relatives. But, in true farce tradition, the whole gang — even the “over-enunciating” rabbi who performed the service — find their way to this vulgar love nest, with its round bed and Jacuzzi. (Credit and/or blame for the over-the-top scenic design goes to Santo Loquasto.)
There’s a reason for this traffic jam. It seems that Nina was supposed to marry Jerry’s stepson, Paul (Bill Army), and everyone in the wedding party was aghast when the old man stole the bride from under the kid’s nose.
Now, that’s a good hook. But while it pulls disapproving (or envious) friends, relatives, and abandoned wives and lovers into the room, it can’t make them funny — not even with Julie Kavner, Mark Linn-Baker, Richard Libertini, and other veteran comic actors in the parts. Although Allen has dragged the corny borscht-belt routines out of the trunk in affectionate homage, bad jokes are still bad jokes.