Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Relatively Speaking

Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York
(2011)

For some reason, New York has developed a taste for triple bills of 30-40 minute comedies, a format completely unknown in London since the days of Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan.

While this format clearly has great appeal to those bred on TV when even a 40-minute slot denied advertising breaks requires greater than average concentration, it is not necessarily ideal for a theatre performance where typical audiences prefer to have stories and characters that develop.

Ethan Coen is the common link between Happy Hour at Atlantic and these Jewish-themed comedies directed by one of his favourite actors, John Turturro.

The credentials of all involved in this production cannot be faulted and these short plays are guaranteed to amuse and even exercise the mental faculties to a degree.

Talking Cure by Ethan Coen

Ethan Coen’s opener, whose characters could almost have been written by his colleague Woody Allen, takes us into the mind of Grant Shaud as a probable murderer caged in a secure mental institution.

In a series of frequently very funny short scenes, he talks through his problems with a psychiatrist played by Jason Kravits, whose understanding of his patient may not be all that he believes it to be.

They get along surprisingly well and even seem to provide a degree of succour to each other until a witty twist in the tale as Coen takes us back a generation to see whether the inmate’s parents really were responsible for his current mental state.

George is Dead by Elaine May

This contribution centres on bereaved Doreen, Marlo Thomas. On learning of her husband’s titular demise, this spoiled brat of a matron descends on the daughter of her old Nanny for comfort.

Lisa Emery’s Carla is remarkably patient and somehow refrains from slapping the patronising, clichéd Doreen, which must be the natural response to the kind of behaviour that surely disappeared everywhere else in the United States when slavery went out of fashion.

The humorous twist in the tale is both desperately contrived and somehow deeply satisfying.

Honeymoon Motel by Woody Allen

While Coen and May have their own followings, the producers wisely save the star attraction, Woody Allen, to close the evening at a comedic peak after the intermission.

Honeymoon Motel is a comedy about lust and marriage that features a delightful subterfuge in which Allen plays along his audience for the longest time before revealing that the loving couple, well played by Steve Guttenberg and Ari Graynor, are not quite what they seem.

The cat is let out of the bag with the arrival of Eddie (Shaud again). Also present by the end are a series of unlikely wedding participants including the bride and groom, both sets of parents, the now-tipsy Rabbi, another shrink and a pizza delivery boy who dispenses more wisdom than the others put together.

Before that, each person who enters the tacky motel suite adds laughter to the mayhem until you realise that Allen has almost given up on his plot in an effort to maximise the number of one-liners that can be fitted into his allotted time.

Neither he nor his audience will be too fussed, as they are all characteristically funny and ensure that the evening ends on a real high.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher