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Broadway Reviews

Relatively Speaking

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 20, 2011

Relatively Speaking 3 One-Act Comedies - Talking Cure by Ethan Coen, George Is Dead by Elaine May, Honeymoon Motel by Woody Allen. Directed by John Turturro. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Donna Zakowska. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Carl Casella. Cast: Caroline Aaron, Bill Army, Katherine Borowitz, Lisa Emery, Ari Graynor, Steve Guttenberg, Danny Hoch, Julie Kavner, Jason Kravits, Richard Libertini, Mark Linn-Baker, Max Gordon Moore, Patricia O'Connell, Allen Lewis Rickman, Grant Shaud, Marlo Thomas.
Theatre: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with one intermission
Ticket prices: $55 - $130
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Ari Graynor and Steve Guttenberg in Honeymoon Motel
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"My god--it's so magnificently tacky!"

These words, uttered by Nina Roth upon first glimpsing her "bridal suite" in Woody Allen's "Honeymoon Motel," adroitly describe both the room she's seeing and the evening of plays in which she appears. Relatively Speaking, which just opened at the Brooks Atkinson, joins Allen's one-act with two others by Ethan Coen and Elaine May (maybe you've heard of them?), all of which have modest goals. They're not trying to bust up glitzy taboos, but embrace them, take them home to mom, and then try to convince them to put out afterward. And at that, they mostly succeed.

That bit of wiggle room is key. Although the resulting production, which has been efficiently directed by John Turturro and designed by Santo Loquasto (sets), Donna Zakowska (costumes), Kenneth Posner (lights), and Carl Casella (sound) is roundly amusing, the majority of it is pointless to consider serious theatre. You can point out, quite accurately, that all the plays are meditations on the nature of families: what our relatives give us, what we give them in return, whether blood really is thicker than water, and so on. But the point is nothing more or less than to give you a good time. If you can deal with that, you'll probably have one; if you can't, well, you'll still have a good time, but you'll feel guilty afterwards.

Never is that more true than with "Honeymoon Hotel," the playlet that constitutes the entire post-intermission section of the evening. In it, Jerry Spector (Steve Guttenberg) carries Nina (Ari Graynor) over the threshold of a budget-minded post-wedding love nest, with the intention of devoting the night to lovemaking—as soon as the pizza they've ordered arrives, that is. While they wait, they accommodate eight other guests, all from the wedding party, who are outraged at the couple's behavior. Why? That's technically a spoiler, but let's just say that the bride and groom aren't where they should be when they're supposed to be there together.

The cast is a whos-who of comedy, with Grant Shaud irresistibly neurotic as Jerry's friend, Julie Kavner and Mark Linn-Baker a caustic hoot as the bride's bickering parents, Richard Libertini presenting a finely flustered rabbi, Jason Kravits smartly underplaying his role of an ineffectual psychologist, and Danny Hoch scaling the heights of the ridiculous as the philosophical pizza guy who understands what's going on better than everyone else. Caroline Aaron is terrific as the shrew on call, and Bill Army elevates pretension to new levels as the spurned man left behind.

Allen delivers tons of jokes, as you'd expect, and Turturro's pacing of the coitus-interruptus honeymoon procession keeps the action percolating so the constant secret spilling never tiresome. But you keep hoping that this will all lead to something, and it never quite does. Getting there can indeed be half the fun, but "Honeymoon Motel" is not droll enough to compensate for the destination it fails to reach.

Danny Hoch and Jason Kravits in Talking Cure
Photo by Joan Marcus.

At least the opening play, Coen's "Talking Cure," doesn't pretend it's going anywhere. Here, a therapist (Kravits) is visiting a prison inmate (Hoch) who got into a disastrous argument with a customer at his post office. The doctor hopes he can learn the method and the meaning behind his patient's madness by encouraging the man to verbalize everything he can, and over the course of several sessions we see how far this tactic goes (or, to be more precise, doesn't). The climax is even turned over to the patient's parents (Allen Lewis Rickman and Katherine Borowitz), who demonstrate exactly how their son acquired his tendencies.

Kravits and Hoch have more trouble with the rhythms; as in Coen's collections of short plays at the Atlantic Theater Company, Almost an Evening and Offices, the pacing and shape of the writing does not always facilitate razor-edged portrayals. Rickman and Borowitz are much funnier in their more concentrated acid-spewing scene, but the overall effect of the work is one of unfocused amusement that, just perhaps, doesn't need to talk quite as much as it does.

Lisa Emery and Marlo Thomas in George Is Dead
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Any claims Relatively Speaking has to dramatic legitimacy are earned entirely with the second and best entry, May's "George Is Dead." The lower-middle-class Carla (Lisa Emery) answers the door late at night to discover someone she never expected: Doreen (Marlo Thomas), the exceedingly wealthy woman Carla's mother nannied some 40 years ago. The two don't have much of a relationship—class differences, more than the few years that separate them, kept them apart when younger—but Doreen needs someone to talk to in the wake of learning of her husband's death in an avalanche in Colorado.

What follows, as Carla struggles to help Doreen cope with her tragedy while in the midst of one of her own, is shockingly complex. Carla, it seems, cares so much about others that she's taken to neglecting her own husband, Michael, who's now not speaking to her. When Michael (Shaud) arrives home to find Doreen, things rapidly degenerate, leaving Doreen cowering by the side of couch like a confused toddler listening to her parents argue. The world from which Doreen has always been isolated is not the pleasant place she's always perceived it, and both she and Carla are forced to confront their own issues with responsibility, motherhood, and compassion for others.

Thomas is wonderful as Doreen, capturing her emotional immaturity and self-absorption without cloying, and turning Doreen's litany of the endless decisions foisted upon her (among them: quiche or soufflé, roses or poppies, which chauffeur will drive her around) into a fall-over hilarious portrait of self-delusion. As Carla, Emery is alternately moving and riotous as she struggles to balance Doreen's demands with the rigors of her own life. Shaud is a firm presence as the exasperated Michael; and Patricia O'Connell is haunting as Carla's problem-solving mother, who may not have preferred her own daughter over her surrogate.

By the time "George Is Dead" concludes, you won't know whom to decry and whom to pity— or even if there's any distinction between the two. You will, however, have laughed and been struck quiet in roughly equal measure, and be reminded that the most affecting drama sometimes emerges naturally from the frothiest comedy. As nice as it is to have a play that's both funny and full, it's a shame the two it shares Relatively Speaking with are every bit as empty as they are entertaining.

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