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New York City Theater

"Relatively Speaking"
Brooks Atkinson Theater

Don’t fret if you’re late for “Relatively Speaking,” the three one-act comedies by Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen. Coen’s piece, the first up, is a slight affair. May’s comes second with a head-scratching look at infantilism, marriage, death and betrayal. (P.S. It’s a comedy.)

Then, following intermission, comes Allen’s contribution, a hilarious farce about parents, children and a ranting rabbi. Filled with Borscht Belt jokes, many of which have whiskers, this hour-long farce is guaranteed to break down your resistance and make you guffaw. Is it worth the high price of admission? You need a laugh in these morose days? Then, yes.

Back to Coen and his “Talking Cure.” In a jail cell, a psychiatrist interviews Larry, a mental patient. A postal worker who was once a boxer, Larry so bamboozles the doctor that the question becomes, “Who’s interviewing whom?”

What in Larry’s background caused him to assault someone is shown in a flashback. As his pregnant mother argues with her husband about the propriety of inviting the Hitlers to dinner, we see the seeds of Larry’s later breakdown.

It’s all terribly slight, though well acted by Danny Hoch is fine as Larry. And acting nearly saves May’s “George is Dead,” a mishmash of a play or, rather, a mashup of several plays.

One part has to do with the disintegrating marriage of Carla and Michael. The other, more substantial section, deals with Doreen (a wonderful Marlo Thomas) who, having just learned that her husband died in Aspen, comes to Carla in search of Carla’s mother, once Doreen’s nurturing nanny.

If one part is meant to mirror the other, it loses out to the relationship between Doreen and Carla (an excellent, as always, Lisa Emery) who craves the attention her mother lavished on Doreen. The latter, dressed in baby pink, is spoiled and egocentric. “I don’t have the depths to feel despair,” she says in a moment of insight.

May is always an arresting writer. But she seems as uneven here as in several of her other works. Doreen has a significant line, ”Am I being awful? I never can tell.”

Where Coen and May got their ideas is a mystery, but it’s clear that Allen’s own romance with step-daughter Soon-Yi may have kick-started “Honeymoon Hotel.” Allen goes beyond the December-May romance to create a potpourri of funny types: dyspeptic parents, kvetching mothers, speechifying clergymen (“Why do rabbis enunciate?”), over-confident psychiatrists.

All burst into a room at said motel to protest an interrupted wedding. The plot, as in all good farces, is merely the grease that gets wheels rolling and gags spewing.

“There’s a lot to be said for inertia in marriage,” says one character. “He gave me a bracelet with the words DNR,” says another. And my favorite: “My parents were always fleeing from a pogrom. That’s how they learned to make love on the run.”

Among the expert farceurs are Steve Guttenberg, Julie Kavner (the voice of Marge Simpson), Danny Hoch (terrific again) and the hilarious Richard Libertini as the rabbi. As directed by John Turturro, the whole shebang is fast and furious, just as farce ought to be.

-- David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 7, 2011

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