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Fish in the Dark

Larry David brings the wince-inducing humor he cultivated on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm to Broadway.

Larry David as Norman Drexel in his play Fish in the Dark, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, at the Cort Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Larry David knows what his audience wants. In Fish in the Dark at the Cort Theatre, David's Broadway debut both as playwright and performer, he gives us a comedy that can only be described as the love child of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the two enduringly popular television shows he helped create. Anyone who has celebrated Festivus, punctuated sentences with "yada yada yada," and chuckled at seeing the name of real-life entertainment lawyer/George Costanza-nemesis Lloyd Braun as the play's above-the-title producer will find much to enjoy. Those unaccustomed to David's cringe-worthy sense of humor may be in for a long evening.

David plays Norman Drexel, a middle-aged urinal salesman whose father, Sidney (legendary character actor Jerry Adler in the briefest of cameos), is about to kick the bucket. As the mishpucha gathers at pop's bedside, the dying old man makes Norman and his brother, Arthur (Ben Shenkman), promise to let their mother, Gloria (Jayne Houdyshell), live with one of them for the rest of her life. Of course, no one can tell which brother Sidney was talking to, and it falls upon Norman, the socially inept oaf, and his beleaguered wife, Brenda (Rita Wilson), to take mom in, even though she hates everything about her son's shiksa spouse. Naturally, Norman manages to alienate just about everyone in his path, with the exception of Fabiana (Rosie Perez), the longtime family housekeeper who's been harboring a major secret involving her 20-year-old son, Diego (Jake Cannavale).

With 18 characters and at least a half-dozen scenic locations, Fish in the Dark, directed with a giddy lack of remorse by Anna D. Shapiro, is the biggest nonmusical that Broadway has seen in several years. Subscribing to David's Seinfeld motto of "no hugs, no lessons," the first act plays out like the final episode of that series, a vaudevillian cavalcade of guest stars (Broadway vets like Marylouise Burke and Lewis J. Stadlen, to name a few) who arrive and immediately start making Norman's life complicated. The second half, more Curb Your Enthusiasm in tone, finds Norman and Fabiana hatching an unorthodox and deliciously horrible plan about how to get Gloria out of his house.

When David described Norman in interviews as "Larry David, but with a different name," he wasn't kidding. Norman is essentially the same person we've come to know and love-hate on Curb, the kind of guy who argues about semantics ("It's 'walk the walk,' not 'walk the talk,'" he yells at Brenda), picks fights with children (he accuses his 14-year-old niece of having someone ghostwrite the eulogy that she wrote for her grandfather), and is easily gulled into believing silly things (like tipping doctors for good service).

Because the character is so close to the persona he's cultivated for the last 15 years, David makes one of the most assured Broadway debuts in recent memory, one that plays to the Cort's top balcony through his exaggerated gangly gestures and his hoarse yet bellowing voice. While David has written himself a plum role, he's also written gems for Houdyshell, perfection as a Jewish mother from hell who makes Estelle Costanza seem understated; Shenkmen, both an expert foil and an unapologetic a-hole; Perez, who finds ways to make a stereotypical Latina maid not entirely stereotypical; and Stadlen, hilariously over the top as the argumentative Uncle Stewie.

Wilson is less successful as Brenda, but the actress is doing her best with a one-note character whose only aspect of back story is having a highly detailed autobiographical memory. The remaining members of the sprawling ensemble, particularly Cannavale, Burke (as Norman's aunt Rose), and Molly Ranson (as Norman's actress daughter, Natalie), are all funny enough that they deserve more to do.

"Go big or go home" seems to have been the mantra for the design team. Todd Rosenthal has provided several grandiose sets, at once cartoony and hyperrealistic (the banquet table in the post-funeral scene could be taken directly from both a comic strip and an actual shiva house). Ann Roth's California-chic costumes are recognizably human, and even some of David's trademark slouchy sweater-under-a-blazer looks make an appearance. Brian MacDevitt's lighting is bright and sunny, while David Yazbek provides a lively score of incidental music.

But is Fish in the Dark a good play? The story is all over the place, and the second act doesn't continue the narrative as much as tell an entirely new one. And it would probably benefit from a shorter run time filled with more straight laughs than its current two hours of amusing peaks and dry valleys. For a Seinfeld and Curb diehard, though, it's impossible to discount the amount of joy that comes from watching David's antics in the flesh. In that respect, Fish in the Dark is more than pretty good, it's pretty great.

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