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Relatively Speaking – For Coen, May And Allen: It’s All Relative

by Karen Tortora-Lee on December 14, 2011

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Three heavy hitters have teamed up on Broadway to give audiences an evening of kinship wrapped in contention with Relatively Speaking: three one-act comedies which cover various forms of familial remedy, rivalry and racket.  Four-time Oscar winner Ethan Coen, two-time Oscar nominee Elaine May and multiple award winner Woody Allen each offer up their views on the subject, resulting in short plays which each bear the distinct mark of their unique brand of writing; all delivered under the deft direction of John Turturro.

Danny Hoch and Jason Kravits in Talking Cure by Ethan Coen (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Ethan Coen handles the “remedy” side of things and is first up with Talking Cure.  Coen’s distinctive, brooding style is in evidence throughout this snappy first act which finds Jerry, a post office worker (Danny Hoch – delivering his performance like a shaken soda can about to explode) having recently gone … well … postal.  Now committed to a mental hospital, Jerry receives routine visits from his therapist (Jason Kravits) who tries to reach him in earnest.  Set during a series of fast paced discussions — punctuated by abrupt blackouts — Jerry battles the doctor at every turn.  Their verbal sparring brings frustration to both as “everybody has problems” becomes a constant refrain.

Even as the doctor tries in vain to promote his “talking cure”, he is needled by his patient: “What if I start talking too much?  Is there a ‘shut-the-fuck-up’ cure?

In a quick set change, we’re suddenly transitioned from the world of Jerry (who has gotten more belligerent) and his doctor (who has become increasingly frustrated) to a quiet dinner scene which rolls forward complete with demure solid wooden fixtures, elegant table setting and grand picture windows.

However, what first appears to be a quiet evening at home for this couple (Allen Lewis Rickman and Katherine Borowitz) quickly devolves into a shrill argument that, like any fight, shows there’s no topic too random or irrelevant to use as ammunition when you’re angry — so of course it makes perfect sense when a phantom couple called “the Hitlers” are conjured up  purely to be used to underscore a point.  The woman is pregnant and it doesn’t take much after that to find that the unborn baby is destined to become Larry the postal worker.  Talking Cure is a perfect bite-sized play that archly illustrates the notion, “With parents like these, no wonder he turned out like that”.

Marlo Thomas and Lisa Emery in George is Dead by Elaine May (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Next up is Elaine May providing the rivalry with her beautiful gem George Is Dead.  Artfully interweaving laughter and blunt observation, she serves up two very different women who had the opportunity to be reared by the same woman – though each was given a far different allotment of time and attention and stands now in a very different world.   Carla (a no-nonsense Lisa Emery) is anxiously awaiting her husband’s return after a delay at her mother’s house has caused her to miss his acceptance speech at an awards ceremony.  Ridden by guilt, she paces and leaves messages in the hopes of convincing him to return home.   A middle-of-the-night knock on her door proves to be Doreen (Marlo Thomas) who tumbles into Carla’s apartment on the brink of hysteria screeching, “George is dead!” and then proceeds to turn Carla’s night upside down.

Not close friends, not even somewhat related, the wealthy Doreen was raised by Carla’s mother who was her nanny.  Now grown the woman admits to not having seen her nanny in 40 years but somehow manages to stagger to Carla’s place since everyone else she knows is unavailable, and in the wake of this upsetting news of her husband’s tragic accidental death, she’s helpless.  And rich.  Surely she’s not expected to do anything is she?

What follows is an utterly priceless night of watching as Doreen simply pouts and tantrums her way out of taking any action.  “What will I do?” she wails at one point, “I don’t have the depth to feel this bad!“  As she reels off the things that usually constitute a bad day in her protected world (all the while instructing Carla to scrape the salt off her saltines), she comes off not so much malicious as simply vapid and unaware of anything but herself.  In fact, when Carla asks “Have you been listening to me?” she replies, “Not really.  I’m always stunned that people listen to each other’s stories.

And so, throughout the night, we find more and more how Carla was left alone as her mother tended to Doreen, and how Doreen was utterly dependent upon her Nanny while being completely oblivious of the woman’s personal life.

When Carla’s husband (Grant Shaud) comes home a long-brewing tension erupts and he leaves her.  Oblivious, Doreen hunkers down and continues to expect Carla to arrange for George’s body to be transported back to New York, to call the lawyers, even to give her a nightgown, and tend to her throughout the night.

Ultimately there is a heartbreaking moment when Carla’s mother arrives on the scene the next morning to coax the petulant Doreen into her (borrowed) black dress.  Taking charge, Nanny  does for Doreen what she never did for her own daughter: command the situation.  It is an ironic move for an old woman who, helpless and baffled by her remote only the night before, caused Carla to miss her husband’s speech and unwittingly set that tragedy in motion.  Now, however, there is no time to inquire about her daughter’s broken marriage … her Doreen needs her.  As the two close ranks, as if no time had passed, it is absolutely devastating.  Not only does the scene unfold brilliantly, but the pain leaves a surprisingly raw scratch after such strong comedic performance.

Ari Graynor and Steve Guttenberg in Honeymoon Motel by Woody Allen Photos (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Woody Allen caps of the evening’s fare with the typical racket in Honeymoon Motel.  This one-act finds Allen at his best and hearkening back to breezier days of fast one-liners and quippy zingers.  This play is all about what happens when, as one of the characters notes, “a mid-life crisis turns into an end-life crisis.”  And once again, parallels to Allen’s life are in evidence — though don’t distract from the broad humor of the piece.

When we come upon the happy couple – a May/December pair who seem as excited to get down to the business at hand as they are about the sheer tackiness of the decor of the honeymoon suite – they are breathless with joy and exhilaration.  Soon enough, we find that the bride Nina (Ari Graynor) and her tuxedo’d romeo Jerry (Steve Guttenberg) aren’t actually what they seem.

Shortly, the love-nest becomes a hub of activity as every in-law and even the rabbi and the shrink comes crashing through the door, each brandishing their own shtick and often times simply unleashing jokes into the room to no one in particular.  It’s chaos done right, however, in a Marx Brothers “Is my Aunt Minnie in here?” kind of way, and all the fabulous actors are given their moment to shine, despite the pandemonium.  Ultimately it is not the Rabbi or even the Therapist who manages to calm the roiling storm, but the pizza delivery guy – who arrives in the nick of time – with a pie that’s half sausage, half pepperoni and all wisdom.

Relatively Speaking covers a lot of ground in its three short acts; while not all of it hits the same mark in terms of symmetry, there is still a certain rhythm created through the entire piece thanks to Turturro’s strong direction.  He takes care to build up some of the weaker spots and reign in the areas that could have gone careening off … this keeps a common element flowing throughout three very different plays making them more of a cohesive whole.

While there are no real deep insights to take away from this night of theatre, there is certainly an abundance of fine acting and wonderful laughs — with May’s middle piece fastening the two bookend plays in place.

If fighting with your own family no longer holds the same kicks it used to, come down to the Brooks Atkinson Theater and listen in as these great writers put the fun back in dysfunctional.


Three one-act comedies directed by John Turturro
Talking Cure by Ethan Coen
Jason Kravits (Doctor), Danny Hoch (Jerry), Allen Lewis Rickman (Father), Katherine Borowitz (Mother)
George Is Dead by Elaine May
Lisa Emery (Carla), Marlo Thomas (Doreen), Grant Shaud (Michael), Patricia O’Connell (Nanny)
Honeymoon Motel by Woody Allen
Steve Guttenberg (Jerry Spector), Ari Graynor (Nina Roth), Grant Shaud (Eddie), Caroline Aaron (Judy Spector), Julie Kavner (Fay Roth), Mark Linn-Baker (Sam Roth), Richard Libertini (Rabbi Baumel), Jason Kravits (Dr. Brill), Danny Hoch (Sal Buonacotti), Bill Army (Paul Jessup)
Brooks Atkinson Theater
256 West 47th Street
New York, NY
For tickets call: (877) 250-2929
Or Click Here


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