New York City Theater
"Fish in the Dark"
It’s an old saying: “Where there’s a will, there’re relatives.” Sidney Drexel is dying, about to leave wife Gloria a widow. Which of two sons will he choose to give dear old mum a roof over her head: neurotic Norman or anxious Arthur? More to the point, which brother really wants to take care of the old gal? And who’ll get Sidney’s Rolex? And does the casket have to cost so much?
Thus we plunge into “Fish in the Dark,” which sounds a lot like a reverse “King Lear,” with ungrateful sons, not daughters, and a woman, not a man, as the unwanted guest. As written by and starring TV’s Larry David, who made hits out of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” you expect funny and funny is what you get, if your standards aren’t too high. In anticipation, the play had a record advance sale.
Audience and investors get their money’s worth, if you add up the gags. Just about every line is a joke. Example: “I don’t want to die alone. I want to live alone, but I don’t want to die alone.” The rhythm is familiar to fans of David, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. It’s their stock in trade: neurotic Jews who joke about sex, money, eating and death.
What’s even more welcomed, and unexpected, is the play’s structure: it’s an actual plot, with reverses and discoveries, not merely strung-along wisecracks. The evening explodes with farcical entrances and exits, sight gags and fast-paced quips, courtesy of director Anna D. Shapiro and a game cast. David himself isn’t much of an actor: awkward and often inarticulate, he semaphores his gestures and, when in doubt, reverts to using his lanky body as a punctuation mark. (Jason Alexander, George Costanza in “Seinfeld,” takes over June 9.)
But David has given himself and others recognizable characters. True, they’re without depth but, hey, this is a farce for the masses, not really “King Lear.” And it’s filled with the kinds of off-color jokes that used to please what was once called “the bald-headed row,” men who yearned for legs and breasts, not wit.
The supporting cast is tops, with high-caliber actors like the acerbic Jayne Houdyshell as Gloria, the overbearing Jewish mother, plus the delightful Rosie Perez and the always expert Lewis J. Stadlen and Mary Louise Burke. And a word for Jake Cannavale (Bobby’s son), making an impressive Broadway debut as a lusty teen.
“Fish in the Dark” isn’t really about anything. But, then, neither was “Seinfeld.” While the stage vehicle won’t last nearly as long as the TV show (nine years), it’s a good ride, funny and sort of endearing.
--David A. Rosenberg
May 6, 2015