Woody’s ‘Honeymoon’ Home Run

Allen’s older man-younger woman (no?) romance caps off ‘Relatively Speaking’ series of one-acts.

10/23/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
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He’s done it so many times, showing us a lecherous middle-aged man and a nubile young woman, decades his junior, and the love that blossoms between them. You would be forgiven for thinking that Woody Allen has already exploited this theme from every possible angle.

But think again, and high-tail it to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where Allen’s riotously funny one-act stage comedy, “Honeymoon Motel,” gloriously caps off  “Relatively Speaking,” a series of three star-studded one-act comedies about family relationships that opened Thursday night.

While the two preceding plays, “Talking Cure” by Ethan Coen and “George is Dead,” by Elaine May, are not up to the level of “Honeymoon Motel,” Allen’s priceless offering , with its flawless ensemble acting, makes the evening well worth the trip.

One-act plays, which used to be more common on Broadway and which became a staple of Off-Off-Broadway theater beginning with Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story” in 1963, are seldom done these days. But producer Julian Schlossberg, founder of Castle Hill Pictures, has made them his stock in trade. Schlossberg also produced “Death Defying Acts,” a similar evening of three one-act plays (by Allen, May, and David Mamet), that ran in 1995 at the Variety Arts Theatre in the East Village, and in which Allen’s contribution, a sex comedy called “Central Park West,” was also the highlight of the show.

Directed by John Turturro, “Relatively Speaking” begins somewhat unpromisingly with “Talk Therapy.” A series of staccato scenes reveal a sullen inmate (Danny Hoch) imprisoned in a batting cage-like room in an asylum whose anxious therapist (Jason Kravits) is trying to get him to talk about his feelings. Locked in a battle of wills and words, the two men at the outset of “Talk Therapy” accomplish little, even as Hoch is eloquent in his frustration and simmering anger. The scene then shifts, through the use of an upper stage, to a dinner conversation between Hoch’s parents (Katherine Borowitz and Allen Lewis Rickman), back when the son was still in his mother’s womb, as she fends off her husband’s sadistic verbal abuse, which is morbidly deflating rather than amusing.

Coen has experimented quite a bit lately with the one-act form. Yet his own trio of one-acts, which ran at the Atlantic Theatre in 2008 under the title “Almost an Evening,” lacked depth. “Talk Therapy” will do little to burnish his reputation as a playwright, although it has some of the air of absurdity and hovering menace that mark his films, for which he and his brother Joel are so renowned.

Things pick up considerably with “George is Dead,” in which a spoiled socialite, Doreen (Marlo Thomas), having lost her husband in a skiing accident in Colorado, arrives suddenly at the shabby New York apartment of her childhood nanny’s daughter, Carla (Lisa Emery). Paralyzed not so much by grief as by her inability to take responsibility or cope with having to do anything for herself,  Doreen reasserts a power relationship over Carla, getting her to make all the funeral arrangements while also catering to Doreen’s every whim.

Both actresses are excellent. Emery is pitch perfect as a much-abused woman who, even as her own relationship with a narcissistic teacher, Michael (Grant Shaud) is collapsing, represses her own needs long enough to take care of Doreen, at least until Carla’s mother (Patricia O’Connell) shows up and allows Doreen to undergo a complete, if somewhat implausible, regression to her childhood.

“Honeymoon Motel” is in a league of its own. It takes place entirely in the garish hideaway to which Jerry Spector (Steve Guttenberg) has abducted his son’s bride, Nina Roth (Ari Graynor), dragging her from under the chupah. Before long, the entire wedding party wends its way to the motel room, including Jerry’s horrified best friend, Eddie (Grant Shaud), his wife, Judy (Caroline Aaron), Nina’s parents, Fay (Julie Kavner) and Sam (Mark Linn-Baker), and even the pompous rabbi (Richard Libertini).

The insults and recriminations fly, with a constant string of revelations about each character’s most embarrassing flaws and most intimate sexual history. Kavner, whose nasal voice is best known as the voice of cartoon character of Marge Simpson, is especially funny as a doleful, cantankerous woman whose own marriage leaves much to be desired.

But some of the best lines of the evening belong to the rabbi who, in typical Allen fashion, is the worst hypocrite of all — he inappropriately eulogizes everyone at the drop of a hat, and he decides that he can eat pepperoni pizza as long as he consumes it in the bathroom. Turturro does an admirable job of managing this mayhem, letting the dizzying comedy build until the inevitable payoff, which is delivered, quite unpredictably, by the pizza delivery boy (Danny Hoch), who brings down the house with his own street-smart take on the lamentable but perhaps inevitable fraying of family ties.

While one-acts are often hit and miss, “Relatively Speaking” starts with a miss, follows it with a near-hit, and ends with an absolute out-of-the-park home run.

Relatively Speaking” is in an open-ended run at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. Performances are Mondays- Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $74.75-$129.75,call TicketMaster at (800) 745-3000.

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