Relatively Awful

Ethan Coen/Elaine May/Woody Allen
Relatively Speaking
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, NYC

Comedies that aren’t funny are an unpleasant proposition, particularly when there’s more than one to be endured in a single evening.  In a baseball analogy, Relatively Speaking would rack up two stone-faced strikeouts and a base hit worth a couple chuckles and some thought. One would hope that when three respected writers such as Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen combine forces to mount a collection of one-acts, directed by John Turturro, that there should be an expected level of quality, but instead of the words of proven masters we are presented with the misguided scribbling of rank amateurs.

From the writing pool, Elaine May is the only author to emerge with her literary honor intact. May’s one-act, George is Dead is a misfit in this unhappy threesome, providing a comic look at unofficial serfdom in the United States through characters and a plot that could easily -- and should -- be developed into a full-length play. Marlo Thomas (above) dominates in the role of Doreen, striking the comedic apex of the piece after reeling off an extensive list of luxuries that the wealthy must suffer through because the help refuses to make decisions for them. Despite a complete lack of consideration for others and an unquestioned assumption that all exist to serve her, Thomas creates a character that is likeable as well as amusing in the complete lack of a filter between her words and self-absorbed thoughts. This display of unspoken struggle between the server and the served is both timely and worthy of more running time than it is provided in this current collection.

As for Coen and Allen, the name recognition that allowed them to drop these comic abortions on a Broadway stage may be preventing them from decent writing. Coen’s piece, Talking Cure, is not so much an incomplete idea as it is a scrambling for some semblance of an idea. Danny Hoch provides some funny moments as the poorly drawn character of Larry, but the only way in which this piece resembles a play is that there are actors on a stage exchanging dialogue. However, this one-act that isn’t there in the beginning of the evening is far more acceptable than the one that is at the end.

What the hell happened to Woody Allen? Formerly one of the greatest innovators of comedy in American cinema, Allen’s current idea of funny limps its way across the stage, lobbing wobbly slow-balls that can be seen coming from a mile away but still hurt when they land… and not from laughter; they just hurt. Witless stereotypes, sitcomish scenarios, running jokes that never land but keep on coming, and a multitude of bad gimmicks and failed rimshots are all present to make for a completely unfunny performance. If Allen were going for groans, Honeymoon Motel would be a resounding success.

It doesn’t help that, with the exception of Julie Kavner, no one in the cast understands the relaxed and natural delivery that used to be one of Allen’s trademarks. Hoch, from Coen’s piece, provides some moments of personality, but everyone else is left stranded and unable to do anything with the little they were given. Shipwrecked in this sea of bad writing, director John Turturro offers little or nothing to rescue the sinking ship or save that which is salvageable.

Having been capable of greatness in the past is no guarantee that what one produces today will inherently follow in that same line of greatness. If Woody Allen, John Turturro, and Ethan Coen have accomplished anything with these recent efforts, then it is to prove that point. - C. Jefferson Thom

Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, Manhattan

Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.

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