There is no awkward small talk at the Brooks Atkinson theater, where Relatively Speaking, a series of three one-act plays is currently in residence. Written by Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen, this trio of amusing and surprisingly moving comedies is nothing if not wordy. Directed by John Turturro, the three plays are linked by the overriding theme of damage caused by families – a wide net which leaves a great deal of dramatic opportunity both comedic and tragic. Language is power in this show, and it is abused by many onstage.
Coen, who has achieved fame in Hollywood thanks to his films Fargo and the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, begins the evening with Talking Cure, a collection of scenes between a man incarcerated in a mental hospital and his therapist. The prisoner, Jerry, is played by an excellent Danny Hoch and refuses all attempts by his doctor to discuss the violent act that landed him in the hospital. The therapist, played by Jason Kravits, gamely continues his attempts to help Jerry open up and even engages in the acts of deflection that Jerry persistently plays. As the two begin one of their sessions, Jerry says, “I guess I’m hoping — could this be one of those things where it turns out I’m the doctor and you’re the mental patient?” That is almost exactly what happens.
Following the sessions between Jerry and the therapist, the audience witnesses a scene between Jerry’s parents, (the excellent duo Allen Lewis Rickman and Katherine Borowitz) fighting on the night he was born, which suggests that Jerry is doomed to a life of unhappiness no matter what he does. The play is brief and disturbing, leaving the audience feeling thoroughly rattled. When the increasingly shaken therapist explains the Freudian method of the “talking cure,” Jerry inquires, “What if the illness is talking too much?”
Another sort of familial dysfunction is explored in Elaine May’s play George is Dead. Alone, late at night and fearing that her husband is angry with her, Carla (Lisa Emery) is visited by Dorreen (Marlo Thomas), the wealthy woman Carla’s mother used to nanny. The two are not close friends; they have not seen each other in years, but Doreen’s husband George has died suddenly and Doreen, a pampered society wife, is at a loss of what to do or who to turn to. She intrudes on Carla’s home and hospitality, demanding food and drink all the while lamenting that she is alone in the world and pondering in the following breath who her next husband might be. Too befuddled by the tragedy to arrange her husband’s funeral, Doreen bluntly exposes herself as the child-woman she is, incapable of doing anything on her own.
The first half of the play moves briskly, with Carla’s anger at Doreen providing some great comedic moments. (Her wordless response to Doreen’s request that the salt be scraped off of Saltines is priceless.) But when Carla’s husband Michael (Grant Shaud) enters the stage, George is Dead takes a meandering turn away from comedy and into philosophy that it never recovers from. We are introduced to the dynamics of Carla and Michael’s marriage, as well as Michael’s frustration with the world at large. He is furious with his wife for attending to her mother and her drug-addicted brother that evening rather than going to a speech he was giving. He is angry with his students for texting too much and with Amnesty International for its policies. As we witness his rage and Carla’s complete lack of emotional boundaries and inability to say no to anyone, especially Doreen, we also witness the price she pays in her personal life. Carla is performed with heartwrenching sympathy by Emery, and the sadness of this play steadily increases and the humor does the opposite. This was enough of a play when it focused on Carla and Doreen; Michael’s philosophical rage against, well, everything, feels out of place and disrupts the dynamic between the two women. By the time the play has concluded, I was left feeling confused and overwhelmed, unsure of what May is trying to say or accomplish.
Relatively Speaking ends on a decidedly light-hearted note with Woody Allen’s Honeymoon Motel, a farce set on the night of a wedding with a surprise ending. As a man (Steve Guttenberg) Nina (Ari Graynor) enter a horribly tacky honeymoon suite at a roadside motel, the consummation of their relationship is interrupted as friends and family of both arrive at their door. The evening quickly becomes a madhouse group therapy session as even Guttenberg’s analyist and the rabbi from the wedding show up. Marital woes are shared, familial grudges are discussed and Allen’s script provides some truly entertaining jabs and culture, religion, and, of course, neuroses.
The ensemble is stellar, with Graynor as the young bride and Guttenberg as the appropriately neurotic older man. (After all, it was written by Allen). The rabbi played by Richard Libertini, delivers some excellent one-liner and insists on eulogizing everyone in sight, and Grant Shaud as Guttenberg’s best friend slips in some great jabs as well. One joke about being gifted with a bracelet engraved “Do Not Rescuitate” was especially funny, delivered by Caroline Aaron as the groom’s mother.
Even Hoch, as a philosophical pizza boy, steals the scene for a few moments as he shares his opinion on the situation. “Life is short and there are no rules,” he states thoughtfully. While it is not a very profound statement, it proved to be a satisfying coda for Honeymoon Motel and Relatively Speaking.