Relatively Speaking Delivers A Mother Load Of Laughs


This is what I find interesting about Relatively Speaking. Ask several people who’ve seen it to pick a favorite among the three one-act comedies being presented. Chances are pretty good you’ll get a quick and self-assured answer. But the ranking of the plays differs according to who’s making the judgment; I think that personal experience plays a big part in the choice.

The three one-act plays are loosely held together by the universal theme of family conflict, and the effect this strife has on members of the clan. Families—can’t live with them, can’t kill them off. Director John Turturro totally gets it, and hits the nail on the head with just the right tone for each vignette. The cast he’s assembled is as close to flawless as any I’ve seen on a Broadway stage.

There seems to be almost universal agreement that the biggest laugh getter is the play penned by Woody Allen. This one’s for all those “I liked him when he was funny” former fans. The setting is the tacky “Honeymoon Hotel” of the title. The décor is hilariously cheesy, as are the giddy bride (Ari Graynor) who is carried over the threshold, and her gallant tuxedoed swain (Steve Guttenberg). They make big plans for the evening ahead, including ordering pizza for the lady still in white.

It’s predictable that all hell will break lose, but how and why is totally unexpected.

Grant Shaud gets to deliver what’s definitely the best line in the evening, and very possibly, the entire season. This is an actor who knows how to work a great punch line, and his delivery brings down the house.

Before long, a string of unwelcome family and friends arrive to upset the anticipated night of bliss. The laugh lines are fast and furious; it’s an almost impossible task to single out one member who tops the rest. The amazing Julie Kavner as the ultra-frank mother of the bride? Or the smothering groom’s mother, played to the hilt by Caroline Aaron? I think the laurels must be placed on the brow of Richard Libertini, as the rabbi who can’t speak without pontificating, and who can’t pontificate without eulogizing.

Several other members of the audience obviously felt that the piece cut a little close to home. Just as my companion whispered “Soon Yi” in my ear, I heard similar references spoken softly throughout the house.

This play comes last in the lineup; don’t be tempted to leave before you see it. The ending doesn’t quite work for me; it seems to tie things up a little too quickly and neatly. But all in all, it’s wonderful comedy.

The first play of the evening, by Ethan Coen, features a mental patient (Danny Hoch, above, right) locked into conflict with his therapist (Jason Kravits, above, left). A series of platitudes of the “Everyone has problems” variety begin the downward spiral of the treatment cycle. There’s a discussion of “The Talking Cure” of the title, which makes this a nice companion piece to Freud’s Last Session. Does this type of therapy actually work? The ex-postal worker patient doesn’t seem to think so.

Note: This piece was the favorite of men only. None of the women polled were anything but lukewarm in their praise. The flashback of the patient’s parents (Allan Lewis Rickman and Katherine Borowitz) was somewhat jarring, and did little to illuminate the problems we’ve previously witnessed.

My personal favorite is the play in the middle, Elaine May’s “George is Dead.” A totally self-absorbed Rich Bitch named Doreen (Marlo Thomas, left, above) frantically enters the home of her long suffering “friend,” Carla (Lisa Emery, right, above), because she’s just been told that her husband has died in a skiing mishap. Truth be told, Doreen hasn’t seen Carla for years, and only comes to her shabby little residence looking for help. Carla’s mother is the nanny for whom Doreen pines. She even once refers to her hostess as “Nanny Carla.” Do for me, die for me; the motto of the narcissist couldn’t be clearer.

For anyone who thinks that Marlo Thomas is over the top in this role, I’m here to tell you that she’s not. I know these women, and so do a lot of the other female members of the audience. Doreen is no different than my friend who dragged me to the garment district to help her pick up an outfit she was going to wear for a party she was throwing; I wasn’t on the guest list. This same friend informed me that I wasn’t being invited to her wedding reception because she wouldn’t be able to afford the filet mignon she was serving if I came. She then lectured me that if I were a true friend and a good person, I’d watch her get married, then quietly leave before the food was served. She had assured me I’d always be family, but later uninvited my husband and me to her Seder because she’d invited 46 other people, and couldn’t “accommodate” us. The list went on, and through it all, she never stopped imposing and asking for favors. And yes, during our time together, her husband did die, and I felt sorry for her, just as in the play.

Here’s the crux of the matter. I don’t have to ask the women who chose this section as their favorite who they are in the scenario. Doreens never recognize themselves as the mean-spirited, egomaniacal, greedy little pointy-toed bloodsuckers they really are. All of us Carlas feel ashamed and guilty that we let ourselves act like doormats. Why do we do it? Elaine May gives us an excellent insight into one possible reason. She sees deep into the female soul, and illuminates as well as entertains us with her work.

That, and more than a few laughs. In an evening at the theater, who could ask for anything more?

Photos by Joan Marcus

Top photo: Left to right, seated: Patricia O’Connell, Grant Shaud, Marlo Thomas, Steve Guttenberg, Jason Kravitz. Standing, left to right: Bill Army, Fred Melamed, Mark Linn-Baker, Danny Hoch, and Lisa Emery.

Relatively Speaking
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street

Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.

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