Speaking Up

One-act plays tend to be the red-headed stepchildren of the theatrical world. Sure, shorts are a mainstay of acting classes and off-off-Broadway festivals, but this delightful and durable form gets no love from commercial theater. Only David Ives’ one-act evening, All in the Timing, broke through the barrier, and even that marvelous collection has never played on Broadway.

Still, if any writers can have the muscle to reach the mainstem with miniatures, they would be Woody Allen, Elaine May and Coen Brothers sibling Ethan Coen. Each makes a contribution to Relatively Speaking: 3 One-Act Comedies now playing at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre until January 29.

Coen opens the evening with Talking Cure, in which an incarcerated postal worker (Danny Hoch) verbally spars with his therapist (Jason Kravits). We then discover the root of the postman’s rage—his obnoxious Jewish parents who bicker, amusingly, about whether anyone in history has said the phrase, “Let’s have the Hitlers over for dinner.” Cure would be a perfectly mordant little curtain raiser if only someone had figured out an ending. Instead, we get two nearly disconnected scenes and then…nothing. (Not that I would presume to tell Ethan Coen how to write a play, but it occurred to me that he could fix the problem just by tacking on a tiny coda—the therapist, also Jewish, and no doubt also the product of post-war Jewish parents, could give his patient a big hug and say, “I understand.” A bit sitcom-ish but better than the current limbo.)

I would say that in his Honeymoon Motel, Woody Allen is going back to the zaniness of his early films, but even Bananas and Sleeper weren’t this zany. Steve Guttenberg stars as Jerry, a middle-aged husband who has fallen in love with another woman (Ari Graynor). That woman just happens to be his son’s fiancée. Worse, the bride and the father-in-law have run off—on her wedding day—to a cheesy nearby motel. Somehow, the family and other guests track them down, and what ensues is a free-for-all of insults, accusations, recriminations and a bevy of shouted punchlines. About one out of every four jokes actually zings and the whole piece suffers from cacophonic direction (by John Turturro). Don’t even get me started on Richard Libertini’s hamminess as a non-sequitur-spouting Rabbi. And yet, for those who thought Interiors was the end of wild Woody, there is still some exhilaration at seeing this cinema master reaching for sheer berserkery onstage. (Those searching the plot for some kind of self-expiation for the whole Soon-Yi affair will come away disappointed. Chuckling, but disappointed.)

Much as I’ve either shrugged at or downright loathed Elaine May’s recent theater work (2000’s Taller than a Dwarf anyone?), George is Dead, her centerpiece for Relatively Speaking, is by far the evening’s most accomplished and satisfying play. Marlo Thomas plays a rich, coddled woman who has become completely unmoored at the recent death of her husband. She visits the grown daughter (Lisa Emery) of her old nanny and, with a mix of pleading, desperation and clueless self-absorption, demands to be taken care of. What makes the play special (besides Thomas’ funny yet oddly touching performance) is the tragic underside to the laughs. This woman, who has never had to lift a finger for herself, may be intolerable, but really, how will she manage now that life has pulled the rug out from under her? The themes are universal, the humor feels truthful and the two performances are splendid. All this in less than an hour. Many a full-length play would be wise to take notes.