Relatively Speaking Is Relatively Lame

Woody Allen, Ethan Coen, and Elaine May scribble up shorts for Broadway

Julian Schlossberg must be the most unwisely loyal friend in the history of Broadway producing. In 2000, he produced Taller Than a Dwarf, Elaine May’s misguided attempt to reanimate her 1962 pre-Broadway thud, A Matter of Position. He’s been involved with other May mishaps as well. Now, Schlossberg has unwisely become the lead producer on Relatively Speaking—not Alan Ayckbourn’s 1965 comedy of the same name, but a creaky new bill of one-acts by May, Woody Allen, and Ethan Coen, directed by John Turturro, currently being performed, though I suspect not for long, at the Brooks Atkinson, a theater named for a famously patient and considerate critic.

Even Atkinson’s legendary patience might have been severely tried by Relatively Speaking, which displays a shapelessness, a haplessness, and a mostly cheerless triviality that don’t sit well at today’s Broadway prices. But then, little of the show has anything to do with today. Coen’s unfunny and unfinished scribble, Talking Cure, the curtain-raiser, deals with a violent mental patient (Danny Hoch), a postal worker who’s apparently gone postal because his mother wanted him to grow up to be the next Jascha Heifetz. How many decades ago did Jewish mothers stop wanting their sons to become Heifetzes? Probably around the time when writers of comedy sketches stopped making mental patients assert that they were sane and their shrinks were the crazy ones.

May’s sketch, George Is Dead, the centerpiece, is also largely unfunny without supplying any alternative to humor. It too seems to be taking place in a sheltered antiquity far removed from the common sense of comedy. A spoiled, helpless rich woman (Marlo Thomas), who has just gotten the news of her husband’s death, intrudes on the life of a childhood companion (Lisa Emery), her nanny’s daughter, at the worst possible crisis-laden moment. Aside from Emery’s laudably dogged insistence on anchoring her role in some degree of truthfulness, the piece’s only point of interest is May’s apparent failure to realize which of the two women is her protagonist. She piles up a plummy lot of potential consequences only to toss them aside and finish off with a cheap laugh that fulfills nothing. A Playwriting 101 class would know better.

Ari Graynor and Steve Guttenberg in Allen's Honeymoon Hotel
Joan Marcus
Ari Graynor and Steve Guttenberg in Allen's Honeymoon Hotel

Details

Relatively Speaking
By Woody Allen, Ethan Coen, and Elaine May
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street
877-250-2929
relativelyspeakingbroadway.com

So, mercifully, would Allen, whose farcical closer, Honeymoon Motel, may not offer much in the way of inspiration, but at least shows that he knows how to construct such trifles. Like a jerry-built house, it’s in constant danger of collapsing, but at least it has four walls and a roof. The premise is, if not the hoariest, certainly the Woody Allenest of all old jokes: A beautiful young bride (Ari Graynor), getting cold feet, deserts her wedding ceremony to run off with her handsome, successful young groom’s middle-aged failure of a stepfather (Steve Guttenberg).

Naturally, most of the wedding party has no trouble following their trail, and soon the cheesy motel room they’ve checked into is crammed with kvetchy people whose collidings, rather flatly staged, give off few verbal sparks and build very little farcical energy. You couldn’t, though, assemble a cast this large in New York without finding at least a few able comedians: Julie Kavner as the bride’s mother and Richard Libertini as the drunk, sententious rabbi score regular laughs despite their pitiable material; Hoch, turning up again as a dimwitted pizza delivery boy who serves as deus ex machina, pumps his big speech till it actually squeezes a string of chortles out of the audience. I wish I could say I thought the result, or anything else about the evening, was worth the effort.

 
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