In the matter of “Fish In the Dark,” the people have spoken. This outlandish comedy penned by Larry David, who also plays the lead role, opened with a stratospheric advance of $13.5 million and is grossing more than a million a week. Which renders moot whatever the critics might have to say about the show. For anyone who’s still reading this review, let me say that, contrary to rumor, the show is not a TV sitcom. It does, however, round up some outrageously funny Larry David-ish characters who could probably float such a show.
Exhibit No. 1 is David himself, who plays a guy named Norman Drexel, who happens to be the spitting image of the misanthropic guy we’ve loved for eight seasons of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” That is to say: childish, selfish, whiny, petty, depressive, dyspeptic and pathologically neurotic.
Norman has taken himself and his bundle of neuroses to the hospital where his father, Sidney (Jerry Adler, great to see you), lies dying. In the real world, a son might take this occasion to reflect on his relationship with his father. But not Norman. He’s more concerned about whether or not he should tip the doctors, a dilemma that accounts for not one but two of the best sight gags in this decidedly offbeat family comedy.
David may not be a convincing stage actor, but every word out of his mouth is funny. And he’s even funnier when he’s speechless — falling to his knees and throwing out his arms in thunderstruck disbelief at the sheer absurdity of everyone else in the room but him. And to do him full justice, he seems to be sticking to the script (after all, he wrote it) and not giving in to any rash impulse to turn to the audience and start improvising.
David’s not crotchety enough interacting with his gorgeous shiksa wife, Brenda, played by Rita Wilson. (Nice casting on that one.) But he holds up his end in the running gag about Norman’s childish sibling rivalry with brother Arthur (Ben Shenkman, a formidable funnyman himself), who has the colossal chutzpah to take a date to the hospital. These two elevate bickering to a minor art form.
Helmer Anna D. Shapiro (“Of Mice and Men,” “August: Osage County”) has shrewdly surrounded her star with some of the best character actors in the business — Lewis J. Stadlen, Kenneth Tigar and the wonderful Marylouise Burke among them — to give master classes on how to time a laugh. There’s a swarm of these pros playing the family friends and relatives who crowd the waiting room keeping the death watch for Sidney, who is showing a lot of spirit for a dying man. Just ask the pretty girl who makes the mistake of paying him a bedside visit.
Instead of sticking to a conventionally constructed plot, this “Fish” swims from one comic situation to another — which may not make it much of a play. But there are plenty of laughs in the play’s minor comic questions, like which of the greedy relatives stands to inherit Sidney’s watch, a quarrel that is enthusiastically argued before the man has even died. And then there are major issues like the scandalous secret that the housekeeper, Fabiana Melendez (Rosie Perez, perfect), is about to spring on this perfectly ghastly family.
Once those beans are spilled, all eyes turn to Sydney’s wife, Gloria, to see how she takes the news. In Jayne Houdyshell’s marvelously droll performance, she takes it far better — and funnier — than anyone might suspect. And just watch Houdyshell savor the punch line to this cynical joke. Give him his due: David is generous enough not to hog all the best lines for himself.