Friday, December 09, 2011

Relatively Speaking

Nov. 30 - Wed. Matinee
The final show of my 3 day entertainment marathon was so good (but honestly, not any better than The Devil's Music).

Relatively Speaking is at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre which is a lovely space on West 47th Street.
I was 3rd row orchestra (not first...why be greedy all the time?!), but still close enough to see everyone spit.

RS is made up of three one-act comedies: Talking Cure, George is Dead, and Honeymoon Motel.

Each has its own playwright and its own cast (though three or four actors wind up in two of the plays).

The entire show was directed by John Turturro (actor in such films as Jungle Fever, Do the Right Thing, Quiz Show, etc.) but is also a very accomplished film and theatre director. He's currently acting in The Cherry Orchard with Dianne Wiest (downtown, eastside).

RS is star studded (as Broadway has to be these days), but let me regale you with one one-act at a time.

Talking Cure:
A guy on lock down in a mental hospital is being treated by a psychiatrist. the patient, a postal worker (I know, right?!), apparently snapped one day when an elderly woman complained about the condition in which her package arrived. Mr Postal Worker responds by beating her down with a tape dispenser.
Most of this play takes place in a "cage" (which, those not very therapeutic, is where the therapy sessions are taking place...i suppose it was meant to show how "trapped" the patient felt not only in the hospital but also in life).

At the end of the play, we are given a flashback to the man's beginning...the day his mother goes into labor with him. His parents apparently loathe each other and are in a heated argument when she goes into labor. The dysfunctional family hostilities are meant to show us how the patient started life without much hope of sanity.

Predictably, the therapy sessions swing from rage to hilarity and back again. and while there is a breakthrough when the patient admits he has self-image/self-esteem and anger management problems, and why (the parents, of course), we never get to see the broken fragments of psyche reintegrated.

The patient, doctor, attendant (walk on part), mother and father are all the characters.
The patient was played by Danny Hoch....Danny is a playwright and an actor (not the playwright of this show, that would be Ethan Coen...he's done a million things, but is probably best known for his screen plays - Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and for his adaptations of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and Charles Portis' True Grit).

Hoch gives a caricature more than a character. He is so preoccupied with clownish facial expressions, exaggerated hand movements, and perfecting a stereotypical Brooklyn Italian accent that there isn't much space left for developing a three dimensional human being for us to care about. Still, his gimmicks were funny enough and the writing was so good that it was still a worthwhile venture.

The mother, played by katherine Borowitz seemed familiar, but her career has consisted mostly of theatre (regional and off-broadway), and I don't think i've seen any of her films (Illuminata, Men of Respect, Internal Affairs, A Serious Man)...but maybe i've seen her in ads or previews for the flicks. Anyway, she was good, though her character isn't given a lot of time to show who she really is. the entire scene with the parents are the two of them arguing at dinner over petty annoyances (which have them at the point of violence) and then her going into labor. So all we see of her or her husband is a comical, petty bickering session.

Meanwhile, its Broadway Cares collection time again, and she was the actor who accepted my contribution at the door :-)

The doctor may be the most famous of the cast: Jason Kravits (you've seen him as an ADA on the Practice, a guest spot on everything, including the fabulous Grey's Anatomy, the final episode of friends, and various films. He not only was the biggest name for the opening act, but he was also the strongest actor with what seems to have been the best written part.

It was cute, funny, enjoyable...but no masterpiece.

George Is Dead:
This was the jewel of the show and should have been the final/anchor piece.
It was written by Elaine May, probably best known for her screen writing, (True Colors, Heaven Can Wait - for which she was nominated for an Oscar, and The Birdcage).

It starred Broadway biggie Lisa Emery, Grant Shaud (the cute producer, Miles, on Murphy Brown...PS - he's fat now), and super brilliant stage goddess Marlo Thomas. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE HER! If you only know her from That Girl (which was funny btw) and St Jude Hospital pitches, and her recurring role as an attorney on Law/Order:SVU (which she is fine in, but of course any capable actor could provide plausible cameo appearances as an attorney) might not know that she is GENIUS.
OMG, she was comedic like Bea Arthur and Carol Burnette and Phyllis Diller and Toti Fields and Betty White all rolled into one human...but she didn't camp it up or throw it away...she took her comedy very seriously and played a shallow, wealthy, and apparently friendless woman who receives a phone call in the middle of the night that her husband has died in a skiing accident.

She turns to the daughter (Doreen, a woman she hasn't seen in decades) of her childhood Nanny for comfort. Doreen takes her in and provides her support even while her own marriage is disintegrating in front of her. The old nanny eventually comes in to save the day, which is sweet and painful...sweet b/c she still cares about the child she raised professionally...painful b/c she never seemed to care that much about her own daughter.

There is pathos, and grief, and silliness, and intelligent humor, and amazing timing, and unhealed wounds, and helplessness, and strength all in the space of less than half an hour!
The men provide good support for the women (a funeral director, his assistant, and Doreen's unsympathetic husband played by Grant Shaud), but Marlo Thomas, Lisa Emery (Doreen), and Patricia O'Connell (the nanny/mother) make the show. It would almost have been as good if the men weren't ever seen (in fact, i think it would have worked just as well). and the giant of the cast was Marlo Thomas. The very next thing she does, I hope to see!

Honeymoon Motel:
Written by Woody Allen (and the real reason I went to the show) known for his quirky and smart comedic films, this was actually his fourth play to be produced. As far as laughs, it was a knee slapper. Lots of schtik, and good schtik, lots of "insider" Jewish and NYC jokes (very Allen), and a plot that was uncomfortably close to his real life (A woman leaves her fiancee at the altar and runs away with his still married to his mother step-dad)...funny and a little yucky too (but maybe less yucky if you didn't know Allen's T).

This had the largest cast with the most "names" -
Steve Guttenberg (remember super cute Steve Guttenberg? Well, he's aged badly and bears little resemblance to the 80s actor we couldn't wait to see shirtless); he's funny, but plays for laughs which makes his character seem a little less real and a little less likable.

His almost daughter-in-law turned paramour played by Ari Graynor (from Veronica Mars and The Sopranos) is very pretty and sexy and plays the pretty, sexy, husband steeling vamp as well as anyone could.

Grant Shaud is in this one act also, as a more likable character than in George Is Dead. But he's just the friend who supplies straight lines for Guttenberg and throws in a few obvious laugh lines himself.

Caroline Aaron, playing Guttenberg's wife, is a striking woman with a powerful presence and she's very funny (not Guttenberg, "look at me i used to be cute and i still try to exude boyish charm so please laugh at my silliness and tell me i matter" kind of funny, but really, strong, good comic timing, has a sense that the person she's playing is a person even if the emotions she is sharing are contrived for comic effect). You'd know her if you saw her - she's done everything...Sleepless in Seattle, Primary Colors, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Edward Scissorhands, etc. She was one of two great performers in the piece.

The other great performer was Julie Kavner (Marge Simpson, Rhoda's sister...THAT Julie Kavner) who was hilarious! Julie and Caroline should put together a two woman show and take it on the road! Julie played Graynor's mother.

There was a rabbi (Richard Libertini), and Danny Hock played the pizza boy (though his character was indistinguishable from the patient in Talk Therapy), and Jason Kravitz played a psychiatrist (not the same psychiatrist he played an hour earlier), and Mark Linn-Baker (Perfect STrangers) was Kavner's husband.

The tart who dumps her man for her man's step dad, the step dad, his buddy, his wife, the tart's parents (Kravner we learn has had two affairs during the course of their with her boss, and one with the marriage counselor they were seeing because of it...funny b/c it is so preposterously unethical, and Linn-Baker retaliated by sleeping with her sister), the rabbi who was performing the ceremony, Guttenberg's therapist (?!), the step-son/dumped groom, and a pizza guy (Graynor is hungry for pizza and orders delivery) all wind up in a cheap motel room where Guttenberg and Graynor have taken refuge for their night of post-wedding disaster love-making. In the end, everyone leaves, relatively OK with life, and Guttenberg and Graynor kiss as the lights go down.

Allen, Turturro, Guttenberg, Shaud, Kavner, Graynor, Linn-Baker, Libertini...You'd think, wouldn't you? I mean, this has got to be 4th of July kind of fabulous. It was more like Presidents Day kind of acceptable. Big laughs. A couple of comic diva geniuses. But at no point did i ever care what happened to any of them, and was actually a little deflated when Graynor and Guttenberg wind up together in the end without any remorse for the lives and families they've destroyed. The pizza boy gives some home spun wisdom about a morally neutral universe (or, in his words, "there are no rules") and there are some very brief ponderings about metaphysics in general...but mostly, its "let's laugh at a lot of one liners, question the existence of a higher power as Allen so famously does, and, thumb our noses at any sense of caring for the feelings of others...break as many hearts as you can as long as you end up happy, or at least relatively pleased"...a decent sit-com for TV, but not especially good theatre.

If the decent first play (though one of its two prime characters was played in my opinion by a weak actor) was followed by the Allen amorality farce and then the Marlo Thomas piece had ended the would have gone from strength to strength and would have made for a better theatrical experience. Almost any time spent in any NY theatre is worth the experiment, and this play as a whole has value for the laughs (however cheap some of them may be), but the bread slices that surrounded the Marlo Thomas meat were jsut that...something to hold up the tasty thing you really want to consume. Marlo's performance and the entire cast/performance/writing of "George is Dead" made what would have been an acceptable theatre outing into a true joy. But honestly, if they had simply done the one act with Marlo in some Off-broadway venue, it would have been a far better venture.

here endeth this NY excursion...


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