Relatively Speaking: Three Comic Takes on Family Drama

10/24/2011 7:00 AM |

Relatively Speaking
Written by Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen
Directed by John Turturro

"A stranger would think we're a dysfunctional family," says Judy, the main character's (soon to be ex-)wife in Woody Allen's Honeymoon Motel, the third and funniest of the short plays directed by John Turturro in Relatively Speaking (through January 15). The joke being of course that there are a thousand strangers in the audience watching this and two other dysfunctional families. Allen's hilarious closer and Elaine May's strong second act manage the format's inherent challenges, while Ethan Coen's clunky opener fails to engage.

In that first one-act, Talking Cure, a disgruntled postal worker who's snapped (Danny Hoch) speaks to a mental institution doctor (Jason Kravits). As the blame for his rage shifts to his parents so does the play, with the institutional cell set pulling apart to reveal the patient's expecting mother and father fighting in their elegant dining room on the evening their son will be born. The banter between the two pairs amuses intermittently, with the doctor trying to get more than evasive responses out of his terse patient, and the parents engaged in verbal warfare. Reprimanding her husband for his language, the very pregnant wife unwittingly predicts her son's future behavior: "Don't make him think, to be an adult is to be a vulgarian." It's the only one of these short plays that feels unresolved, like the opening of a longer drama rather than a self-contained story. It seems all the more so alongside Elaine May's contribution.

The first sentence spoken not into a telephone provides the title of George is Dead, referring to the late husband of wealthy woman-child Doreen (Marlo Thomas) who's shown up at the door of her childhood nannie's daughter Carla (Lisa Emery). The two terrific actresses' strong dynamic sustains the short's first half as clueless Doreen makes increasingly absurd demands on Carla's kindness. The shift in tone from cross-class satire to marital drama occurs when Carla's already-angry husband (Grant Shaud) comes home to find the unwanted guest, promptly packs his bags and leaves. This heartbreaking turn unites Carla and Doreen in their near-simultaneous loss of their husbands, setting up an empathetic finale for a one-act that had previously thoroughly mocked its villainess. May's is the only of the evening's short plays to marry affecting emotional realism with rapid-fire comedy, and holds up as the most well-developed of the three.

Allen, by contrast, goes for all-out farce in the catastrophic meeting of two already-dysfunctional and stereotype-ladden clans. Jerry (Steve Guttenberg) and Nina (Ari Graynor) brim with excitement about their new life together as they settle into a motel's delightfully tacky honeymoon suite—the production's sets, by Santo Loquasto, are unanimously excellent. But this too-perfect picture of newlywed bliss shatters upon the arrival of the first of a parade of ruffled relatives: Jerry's son was about to marry Nina when she ran off with the father of the groom. Scandalized family members and, for good measure, the now-drunken rabbi who was performing the canceled wedding ceremony, crowd the suite until life-affirming wisdom from an unlikely source diffuses the stand-off. This hilarious battle between two caricature-like Jewish families evokes vintage Woody, right down to the animosity between ambitious postmodern novelist Jerry and his best-selling populist author son. Its rapid-fire hilarity plays nicely against May's more calm seriocomedy, both of which make Coen's entry seem weak, relatively speaking.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)