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Broadway Reviews

Fish in the Dark

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 5, 2015

Fish in the Dark A new comedy written by and starring Larry David. Directed by Anna Shapiro. Original music by David Yazbek. Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen. Wig design by Alan D'Angerio. With Rita Wilson, Rosie Perez, Ben Shenkman, Lewis J. Stadlen, Jake Cannavale, Marylouise Burke, Jerry Adler, Jenn Lyon, Jonny Orsini, Molly Ranson, Maria Elena Ramirez, Rachel Resheff, Joel Rooks, Jeff Still, Kenneth Tigar, Richard Topol, and Jayne Houdyshell.
Theatre: Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours, including intermission
Audience: May be inappropriate for 11 and under. Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tues at 7, Wed at 2 and 8, Thur at 7, Fri at 8, Sat at 2 and 8, Sun at 3.
Tickets: Telecharge

Larry David
Photo by Joan Marcus

If your laughs don't go deep, at least they can go long. This seems to be the operating philosophy behind Fish in the Dark, Larry David's new... Well, I'm not sure what to call it, to be honest. "Comedy," though technically accurate, seems far too weighty a term for the paper-thin outing that just opened at the Cort. Perhaps "skit" is more accurate, though that suggests a shorter length and (egad) looser structure than is actually the case. "Whimsy"? "Lark"? "Entertainment"? We may as well go with that one.

Whatever else it may be—and under no circumstances is it much—Fish in the Dark, as directed by Anna D. Shapiro and acted by a large, discipline-spanning cast, is very, very funny. David, who was a guiding force behind Seinfeld and took a more active (and onscreen) role in Curb Your Enthusiasm, knows to hit with the gags early and often, if only so you don't have time to stop and think about what you're listening to—and thus realize how insubstantial it truly is.

The first snickers here start before the action proper begins. All we hear are two voices (one a man's, one a woman's) discussing the tragedy of his father, Sidney, being taken to the hospital in the middle of the night. Thanks for letting me know, but is there any point in going? No, he decides, there's nothing to be done until the morning. So why stay up fretting? Eh, no reason. But what to do instead? In the interests of propriety, I can't follow the situation further, but let your mind wander and chances are you won't end up far off.

Where the man, named Norman and played by David, ends up is in that hospital the following day. With him is his wife, Brenda (Rita Wilson), who's blessed with a flawless eidetic memory. Before long, they're joined by Norman's more successful, but nastier, younger brother, Arthur (Ben Shenkman), and his sexpot girlfriend, Michelle (Jenn Lyon). Then there's Norman's semi-grieving mother, Gloria (Jayne Houdyshell); and daughter, Natalie (Molly Ranson), who just won't disengage from the Eliza Doolittle accents she's adopted for the tiny production of My Fair Lady she's doing, and her boyfriend, Greg (Jonny Orsini). Oh, and we can't forget Sidney's ranting brother, Stewie (Lewis J. Stadlen), or sister, Rose (Marylouise Burke), and her scheming husband, Harry (Kenneth Tigar); or Fabiana (Rosie Perez), the Latina maid who used to work for Sidney and now works for Norman; and... Stop!

There are more characters to come, but that's enough for the first scene, isn't it? In any event, it's enough to tell you that Fish in the Dark will use every weapon in its arsenal to wring the guffaws out of you, and they're all on display. Brenda remembers every detail of random dates with flawless precision that annoys everyone around her. Arthur and Norman bicker constantly over who hated (and, eventually, loved) dad more. Arthur gets to wax ecstatic about the girlfriend he can sleep with endlessly but not talk to, and Michelle elicits plenty of conversation (and, ahem, other behaviors) from the bedbound Sidney. Natalie's oblivious to her obtuseness; Fabiana's accent and fractured outlook hit some humor nerves, Stewie's over-the-top kvetching another, Harry's penny-pinching purse-snatching still one more. And, oh yeah, the playful Greg convinces Norman he should tip the doctor (Richard Topol) treating dad! And on. And on. And on.

Larry David and Ben Shenkman
Photo by Joan Marcus

Every personality type, every trope, every combination of people is utilized, however momentarily, for a specific comic effect, regardless of how minor it may be; if it gets one chuckle and then disappears for the rest of the night, so be it, because that chuckle was there. David lightly links everything together with Norman's libidinous curiosities and obsessions—he's fascinated by what happened when Sidney and Michelle were alone in the hotel room, and queries her at extravagant length—and plenty of the observational non-sequiturs that have driven his work for decades. Whenever David gets to step near center stage with another performer, he's about to unleash something, and usually the sweeping it's-time-to-explode-now arm gestures to go with it, and so you might as well just get out of the way.

The process repeats itself endlessly over the two-hour running time and, miraculously, doesn't get old. David's shtick is self-sustaining enough on its own terms, and he's spread the wealth sufficiently that the later arrivals to the plot—Sidney's lawyer, Jay (Jeff Still); Arthur's daughter, Jessica (Rachel Resheff); and Fabiana's son, Diego (Jake Cannavale)—aren't left out in the cold, either. Some of the biggest bits and best-fueled running jokes occur in the second act, just when you may think there's no further to go. But David does go further, in some cases perhaps too far, and somehow makes it all seem the natural outgrowth of the inane setup and execution. The show is extremely impressive in that way.

But aside from Todd Rosenthal's clever set, a sunny series of Los Angeles locales that steal their design cues from death certificates (yes, really), and David Yazbek's groovy and scatty incidental music, there's not much else to impress. The story is broad but, like the comedy, doesn't build, so you're not invested over the long term. Characters are nonexistent beneath the surface. Shapiro's pacing is atomically precise, but you sense that's only because David's writing plays no other way. And despite the dizzying selection of flawlessly utilized actors, not one of them gives what could legitimately be considered a classic, or even memorable, performance. That's not why they—or you—are here.

Shenkman is here because of his ideal qualities as a straight-man foil for David, not because you benefit from (or, let's face it, want) the kind of complex psychological layering he brought to, say, Proof. Houdyshell is on hand because she's a mistress-matron with a quip, and can bang out the killer curtain line. Stadlen is lovably loud and obnoxious, so he can be the hardest-pushing Jewish stereotype without inflicting genuine insult. Cannavale (the son of actor Bobby Cannavale) is dopey and hunky in roughly equal measure, which you need to make the most of the myriad second-act absurdities. Even Burke, as deft a comedienne as Broadway has, appears to have been hired exclusively because she could bring down the house with a single line in the second act.

In this reality, nothing else matters, including (especially?) David's inability to make Norman a person, and apparent utter disinterest in so much as trying. He's ensured his show never considers more than it can comfortably deliver, so deliver it does, time and time again, in irritatingly irresistible amounts.

"Do you know why we never have sex?", Brenda asks Norman quite late in the evening. "Is it because you don't want to ruin the friendship?," comes the reply. Though I'd heard roughly 500 jokes just like that in the preceding hour, I couldn't stop laughing at that exchange. Judging from the sounds around me, neither could anyone else in the audience. I can argue with just about every individual element of Fish in the Dark, but not with the fact that it ultimately works exactly the way its creator intended.

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