nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
October 26, 2011
There’s something upsetting about the much discussed Hollywood takeover of Broadway. Whenever a film star, even a good one, appears on Broadway—name in lights and on a big, fat check—I’m always nagged by the feeling that, as Shakespeare might say, “the name’s the thing.” At Relatively Speaking, now at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, this unfortunate reality is shamefully clear. It’s certain that if two of the three shorts presented here were written by less notable authors, they would never had found a home in such an illustrious setting. I hate to sound cruel. But with America teeming with focused, talented, and dirt poor playwrights, investing Broadway dollars into such poorly constructed theatre seems wrong.
I did say “two of the three.” The final work, Woody Allen’s Honeymoon Motel, is a riot. A classic screwball comedy, it looks in on a Jewish family, crammed together in a cheesy lovers' motel, trying to make sense of a wedding gone incredibly wrong. This is pure old-school Allen, with boozy, pontificating rabbis, jokes about the absence of a higher power, and, of course, one gorgeous blond. Allen is hardly breaking ground, and even moderate fans will recognize reworked bits from Annie Hall and Midnight in Paris. But even if the foundation is old, the crispness of the script works to build a play that is a joy to watch. The cast is also superb. Running about like a Marx Brothers beehive, they show great control, refusing to wink at even the most absurd line or scenario provided them. It’s the type of play of you don’t often see today, and if Relatively Speaking gets something right, it’s Honeymoon.
Ethan Coen’s Talking Cure, about a mental patient and his increasingly frustrated doctor, is short enough that its potential is not entirely drowned out. It also features Danny Hoch in the “charming but threatening big lug” character often used by Ethan and his brother. Unfortunately though, little else is offered here. What good Coen starts to build is cut down prematurely by a poorly connected scene featuring the inmate’s parents, bickering loudly and using “Hitler” jokes to beat what is now a very, very dead horse. Without warning, the play veers off in an unfortunate direction its beginning never wanted to go, taking us along with it.
George is Dead, by Elaine May, is the most serious of the three, but also the most lost. So many questions are left unanswered regarding the characters' relationships that the comedy, which is mostly sharp, is crushed beneath the weight. By the end, I wasn’t laughing; I was tired. Marlo Thomas, as the helpless, and very privileged, widow Doreen, is very funny and controlled, bringing a fresh approach to this frequently used type. Lisa Emery, as the tightly wound daughter of Doreen’s favorite childhood nanny, is also good. But in spite of two thoughtful and enjoyable performances, the holes in May’s work are many, and impossible to overcome.
Sometimes Broadway gets it right, and sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes, a play is put onstage simply because they know people will pay to see it. In the case of Relatively Speaking, it’s a shame that the latter seems to be true. I reckon that’s why the call it “show business.”