O Brother

Photo: Hubert Boesl/DPA/Corbis (Coen); Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images (Allen); Patrick McMullan (May)

There’s an old joke: Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountains resort, and one of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know, and such small portions.” That’s essentially how I feel about Relatively Speaking, an evening of two half-keistered comedy sketches and one actual playlet, floating in very thin borscht and garnished with three boldfaced names. Woody Allen, Elaine May, and Ethan Coen have each submitted a short work in the hopes that this will amount to “an evening.” Alas. There are plenty more old jokes like that one, but why print them here when you can see them delivered at the Brooks Atkinson for just $130?

Your relative enjoyment of Relatively Speaking can be estimated by your reaction to the following exchange: “You remember Uncle Mendel, he used to put you on his knee and bounce you, he’d give you a pony ride?” “Is he okay?” “Do I know? He was rushed to Columbia-Presbyterian.” “From Great Neck? There’s nothing closer!?” This back-and-forth brought the freaking house down the night I attended. For several tense seconds, I didn’t know what was going on: Was that a joke? ’Twas, apparently. I’m about to say something unkind but accurate: If you find yourself at the stage of life where being choosy about the hospital you die in is grounds for belly laughs, this is the show for you. (You’ll especially enjoy Woody Allen’s execrable “Honeymoon Motel,” a middling, PG-13 Sid Caesar sketch inflated to grotesque proportions.) If, however, you’re looking for something more substantial than petrified shtick that smells of a writer’s sock drawer, you’d be advised to look elsewhere. “Honeymoon” contains a gag about beatniks in black turtlenecks discussing “Swedish movies.” What “Swedish movies”? The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

Of the night’s three one-acts (all directed, with practically audible rimshots, by John Turturro), May’s “George Is Dead”—the story of a rich, ditzy widow (Marlo Thomas) who invades the life of a former underling (Lisa Emery)—comes closest to inflating a full script with more than mere comic potential. Thomas has but one joke to play, and she plays it marvelously: At 60 or so, her Doreen is still a simpering, whimpering, sweetly imperious child for whom service materializes in rhythm with her whims. If she desires a saltine, she fully expects someone will be there to scrape off the excess salt. Doreen’s just lost her husband, George, to a tragic skiing accident; shaken but hardly broken up by her spouse’s demise, she thinks nothing of crashing the drab apartment of her former nanny’s daughter, Carla (Emery), and expecting her to pick up where her mother, credited only as “Nanny” (Patricia O’Connell), left off. Carla’s marriage, to Michael (Grant Shaud), is coming apart—the result, he claims, of her excessive attention to Nanny and consequent neglect of him. Michael is by far the most irritating and unnecessary element of the play: This is the story of three women and the ancient hierarchies they can’t escape, and the presence of yet another grown-up child for Carla to cater to seems extraneous and intrusive. “George Is Dead” is an angry little class tragedy dressed with mordant laughs, and if Emery has little to do beyond playing the hapless straight woman to Thomas’s Betty Boop cuddle-harpy, she does a great job disguising it.

“George” is a little slight, but it’s an epic next to its companion pieces. Coen’s “Talking Cure” is a prospectus for a draft of a mini-idea: An increasingly exasperated psychiatrist (Jason Kravits) pumps a surly patient (Danny Hoch) about his attack on an older woman at the post office. The doc wants to talk about “the altercation,” which the patient willfully mishears as “the alter kocker.” (Laughing yet?) The doctor calls himself a “man of empathy”; the patient snorts, “Empathy! Empathy is for. I dunno. Nurses. Goys.” The scene begins again and again, going nowhere, and not in some knowing, Becketty way—this is the sound of a writer starting over, and over, and over. The fugue concludes with an elaborately illustrated Jewish-mother joke, and suddenly people are bowing. Finally, a play that dares to ask the big question—“Nu?”—and supply no ready answer, especially in regard to its own existence.

Act Two belongs entirely to Allen and “Honeymoon Motel,” which is 40 minutes of strenuous mugging from Police Academy’s Steve Guttenberg, as he’s progressively upstaged and eclipsed by a terrifying army of character actors. Guttenberg plays Jerry, a writer of impenetrable postmodern fiction who’s just stolen his stepson’s fiancée (Ari Graynor) at the altar. Allen sets the action in the honeymoon suite of a tacky roadside fleabag, parading in the usual suspects—the angry wife (Caroline Aaron), the tipsy rabbi (Richard Libertini), the dazed old broad (Julie Kavner)—as if he’s packing a phone booth for an old-­fashioned frat prank. Finally, a pizza man (Hoch again) arrives to deliver Allen’s perennial moral: Life is short, morality is relative, and the heart wants what it wants—so take whatever you can get while you can get it. As for abstract notions of right and wrong (to say nothing of other people’s feelings), well, shtup ’em. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. If you thrill to the prospect of paying a small ransom to hear it again, go ahead. Nothing’s more relative than comedy, after all. The diaphragm wants what it wants. Though why it would want this is mysterious to me.

See Also:
Marlo Thomas on Her Role in Relatively Speaking

Relatively Speaking
By Ethan Coen, Elaine May, and Woody Allen.
Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

O Brother