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Relatively Speaking

This trio of one-act plays by Woody Allen, Ethan Coen, and Elaine May delivers a few hearty laughs.

Marlo Thomas and Lisa Emery in George is Dead
(© Joan Marcus)
A few hearty laughs can be found in the winsome, if not always winning, trio of one-acts that comprise Relatively Speaking, now playing at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre. But given the estimable writers of the pieces, Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen, and the proven talents of the high-profile ensemble, it's difficult to not be disappointed by the production, which should be the comic pinnacle for the Broadway season.

The evening begins with Coen's bifurcated Talking Cure, which starts with a series of sessions between Larry (a menacingly intense, yet funny, Danny Hoch) and his seemingly court-appointed shrink (Jason Kravits) after a violent outburst Larry had at work.

Halfway through the brief sketch, it switches to a flashback to an evening in the 1950s where a husband and wife (excellently rendered by Allen Lewis Rickman and Katherine Borowitz) -- whom audiences come to realize are Larry's folks -- bicker nastily while waiting for two very late (and unseen) dinner guests to arrive. The work does manage to inspire some chuckles, even as it explores nature vs. nurture, thanks to the flavorful performances, particularly Kravits' which is filled with pauses and tics that beautifully punctuate Coen's staccato dialogue.

May's play, George Is Dead, centers on Doreen (Marlo Thomas), a childish and self-centered socialite, who, after learning that her husband has died in a skiing accident in Aspen, turns to Carla (Lisa Emery), the daughter of the nanny who raised her.

Thomas fearlessly and amusingly embraces all of Doreen's haughty, infantile and self-obsessed behavior, and ultimately, proves rather touching as Doreen fights (while retreating to an all-night marathon of Nick-at-Nite sitcom reruns) to remain deluded about the difficult road of widowhood ahead of her.

Emery proves to be the perfect foil to Thomas, and turns in a deliciously edgy performance. Unfortunately, as soon as Carla's angry husband (Grant Shaud) and mother (Patricia O'Connell) arrive on the scene, audiences can sense that the play -- in its current form -- is simply a digest of a longer, more fleshed out, and potentially more satisfying, story.

The longest -- and most enjoyable -- of the three works is Woody Allen's screwball comedy Honeymoon Hotel. Here, the entirety of a wedding party -- from groom and bride to parents of the intended and several hangers-on -- wind up in the bridal suite of a tacky Long Island motel (designed by Santo Loquasto, who does superlative work throughout the evening).

As sex-joke zingers and revelations about the middle aged regrets combine, the company whips itself into a fevered pitch hilariously, and audiences will find that there is much to savor in performances from Steve Guttenberg (as the increasingly frantic father of the groom), Julie Kavner (the distracted and randy mother of the bride), Caroline Aaron (as the biting mother of the groom), Ari Graynor (as the voluptuous bride) and Richard Libertini (as an inebriated and loquacious rabbi).

Unfortunately, the arrival of a pizza delivery guy (also played by Hoch) brings not only the half-pepperoni/half sausage pie, but also a message about tolerance and enjoying life. While well-meaning, the speech leaves Relatively Speaking on a sadly heavy-handed note.