Peter D. Kramer

A whip-smart “Relatively Speaking”

In Reviews on October 21, 2011 at 7:23 am

The laughter comes in waves at the Brook Atkinson Theatre on Broadway, where three one-acts — by Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen — comprise “Relatively Speaking,” a starry evening directed by John Turturro.

Turturro’s work here is a bit of a miracle. He guides three wildly different sorts of plays with three different writing styles employing 16 actors, some famous, some not. He outfits each play with the right tone, the right actors, the right pace. It is something to behold.

While some may arrive at the Atkinson ready to see names from the screen big and small — Marlo Thomas (“That Girl”), Steve Guttenberg (“Cocoon”) and Mark Linn-Baker (“Perfect Strangers”) are in the cast — the revelation of the evening is Danny Hoch, a tall, unforgettable character actor who delivers some of the night’s best lines, first in Coen’s “Talking Cure” and then, after a break, in Allen’s “Honeymoon Motel.”

Coen’s “Talking Cure,” the evening’s first play, is set in a sanitarium and later, in what appears to be a comfortable home, except for all the yelling.

We meet Larry (Hoch), a sanitarium patient and former postal worker, and his doctor (Jason Kravits), in session after session. Larry resents the intrusion, the doctor’s empathy, the doctor’s questions, the fact that he, Larry, might, in fact be the doctor in an alternate telling of the story.

Larry: Ya stickin sabers inna steamer trunk, but you’re not gonna hit anything. I. Don’t. Have. A problem.
Doctor: It’s just talk.
Larry: It’s poking. As if I have a secret problem ya gonna hit with a poke. Nuh-uh. Why am I in this institution? Not because I have a problem.
Doctor: There was no problem at the post office?
Larry: The post office is fine! It’s a living. It’s fine with me. In my mother’s mind it’s a problem. How could I end up working in the post office. I should have been a man of science. Or a great artist. Heifetz. A substantial man. The shame I pulled down on her, not being Heifetz, working in the post office.
Doctor: Okay—
Larry: You know what would be funny. If Heifetz’s mother always wanted him to sort letters.
Doctor: That would be funny.
Larry: Who made you an expert on funny?

Coen’s writing is whip-smart, the kind of dialogue he has honed in character-driven movies with his brother, Joel: “Miller’s Crossing,” “The Big Lebowski” and “Barton Fink,” which starred Turturro.

And Hoch and Kravits — and later the excellent Katherine Borowitz and Allen Lewis Rickman — nail the meter and at times acid poetry of Coen’s considerable writing. Rickman, in particular, seems right out of Coen Brothers’ Central Casting and Kravits does a wonderful slow burn.

We are who are parents made us, Coen seems to be saying.

Poor Larry.

If you’ve wondered whatever happened to Eloise, that precocious pampered girl holed up at the Plaza all those years, so has Elaine May.

The comedienne and writer catches us up with a grown-up Eloise, albeit here named Doreen Whittlesy, still pampered, still helpless, still self-centered, in the evening’s second play, “George Is Dead.”

Carla (Lisa Emery, with a visceral weariness), has had a long day, dealing with her needy mother. She has missed a big speech at Amnesty International delivered by her schoolteacher husband (Grant Shaud). She’s frantically trying to reach him when the doorbell rings. At two in the morning.

It’s Doreen, who announces: “George is dead.”

And the neediness continues to wash over Carla, who must drop what she is doing to tend to Doreen.

It’s how things work for Carla.

And for Doreen, who declares at one point “I don’t have the depth to feel this bad.”

Doreen, clearly among the one percent currently the focus of rage in Zuccotti Park, has come to the wrong tiny apartment to complain about how tough her life is.

Doreen: Our house in Southhampton is so enormous. And all the grounds. It’s such a burden keeping it up. The townhouse in Manhattan isn’t easy, but it’s like living in a trailer compared to twelve acres and seventeen rooms.
Carla: It must take a lot of upkeep.
Doreen: Oh, you can’t imagine. And the staff is totally helpless. They can’t make one decision, “would you like quiche or a souffle, shall we cut the roses or
will the poppies be happier, will you want a fire in the bedroom or are you going into Manhattan, Sandra is off tonight should Raquel run your bath, will you want the manicure before the hairdresser, the chauffeur is sick shall we hire a car or will Alberto drive, the furs have come back from storage, where do they go?” . . . and on and on and on.

Or has she come to just the right place?

Carla seems to cater to her, to scrape the salt from the too-salty Saltines. What is this pull she has on her? We soon learn, over the course of the next 20 minutes,  and in a heartbreaking final image that is as searing as it is unexpected.

Thomas’s performance is the flashy one here. Doreen has the great lines and the big laughs. But Emery’s task is the bigger and she succeeds admirably with it. Watch as the gears spin in her head, as years of neglect play against a clear sense of empathy. There is nuance and brilliance at work here.

The night’s biggest, cascading laughs are for Woody Allen’s “Honeymoon Hotel,” a throwback to those heartfelt comedies by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the ones with stages full of loopy characters lovingly portrayed with not a sniff of irony.

When a tuxedoed older man (Steve Guttenberg as Jerry Spector) and a gorgeous young woman in a wedding dress (Ari Graynor as Nina Roth) arrive in Room 4D of the tacky Starlite Motel, we have a fairly good idea of what’s going on here. He has brought a shaker of martinis. She has a purchase from Victoria’s Secret.

But when there’s a frantic knock at the door, what we know evaporates.

The evening turns on what Jerry calls “a technicality.”

Before long a conga line of hilarious characters enters.

Grant Shaud plays Jerry’s best friend, Eddie — the knock at the door — with the same kind of charming hyperactivity he brought to the producer Miles Silverberg on TV’s “Murphy Brown.” Caroline Aaron (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) is pitch-perfect as Judy. Julie Kavner (forever the voice of Marge from “The Simpsons”) and Mark Linn-Baker (“Perfect Strangers”) are memorable as the parents of the bride.

Richard Libertini makes a wonderfully potted rabbi, continually spouting eulogies. This being a Woody Allen work, there is a psychiatrist, too, and Jason Kravits once again plays the good doctor, though no longer sticking sabers in a steamer trunk. He’s here for laughs, as is Hoch, returning as the very astute pizza delivery boy, Sal Buonacotti.

Sal is Allen’s Deus ex Domino’s (or, rather Deus ex Vesuvius’ Pizzeria), the voice of reason who wraps the whole evening up in a bow in a speech that owes much to Moliere, the servant as the smartest person in the room.

Here’s Allen’s genius: He takes a painful moment in his life, when the tabloids in the city he loves brimmed with venom directed at him, spins it slightly and plays it for laughs.

Big laughs.

Cascading laughs.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Larry (Danny Hoch) and the doctor (Jason Kravits) in “The Talking Cure.” Middle: Doreen (Marlo Thomas) rests her head in the lap of Carla (Lisa Emery) in “George Is Dead.” Bottom: Nina Roth (Ari Graynor) and Jerry Spector (Steve Guttenberg) in “Honeymoon Motel.”

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