After suffering through the fetid Relatively Speaking, my pain must have shown in the scowl on my face as I trudged toward the exit at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. “To get it, you have to be Jewish,” said a woman ahead of me. What nonsense. Since when do you have to be gay to see the truth in The Boys in the Band, or black to be moved by the universal humanity of Lorraine Hansberry or August Wilson? My date was Jewish, and she didn’t laugh either. Well, she later admitted over a badly needed post-theater nightcap, she did laugh at a couple of lines. O.K., two laughs in a 2½ hour evening of three alleged one-act “comedies” is not what I call much of a success, and Relatively Speaking is a vulgar, poker-faced failure of dire proportions. You don’t have to be Jewish to know bad writing, hysterical overacting and lame direction when you see it, even if the guilty perpetrators include Elaine May and Woody Allen, two of my heroes, actors such as Marlo Thomas and Steve Guttenberg, and director John Turturro, who should stick to acting. All of them have triumphed on previous occasions. This is not one of them.
The thin membrane of a theme in this long and tedious evening that links three dismal playlets and two pesky intermissions is Jewish family dysfunction, hence the title Relatively Speaking. In the first, worst and shortest one, “Talking Cure,” by the overrated Ethan Coen, half of the peripatetic Coen brothers movie team, a burly postal worker locked in the cage of a mental institution is visited by a shrink who tries to extract a reason why the man went mad at the post office and assaulted a customer. The doctor applies what he calls a “talking cure” and proceeds to bore the audience to death in a stream of blather. The patient, played by an eye-rolling, scene-chewing Danny Hoch, blames everything on his mother, who yells, and his father, who drools, and asks is there such a thing as a “shut the fuck up cure?” It’s a question I adopted as a talisman for the rest of the play as the cage parted and revealed the parents in a flashback when the mother was pregnant with the future nut case, screaming humilities and insults while she engages in a long (and frankly shocking) hypothetical discussion of the home life of Mr. and Mrs. Adolf Hitler. No exchange of ideas, no development of character, and what is the point? It’s an unsalvageable excuse for playwriting, and a terrible way to open an evening of would-be comedy.
After an interval blackout during which the audience lit up the dark frantically texting, checking emails and playing video games, it was Ms. May’s turn. In a dirge called “George Is Dead,” an unhappy wife named Carla (Lisa Emery), whose disillusioned schoolteacher husband is on his way home after giving a speech on human rights violations at Amnesty International, is invaded in the middle of the night by an irritating, self-centered, whining neurotic named Doreen (a bottle blonde played by the hopelessly miscast and depressingly unrecognizable Marlo Thomas). About 40 years ago, Carla’s mother was Doreen’s nanny and now this obnoxious over-the-hill Jewish princess has arrived unannounced, looking for tea and sympathy and a fresh nightie. Her husband has just died in an avalanche in Aspen, but she’s a rich, spoiled incompetent who doesn’t even know how to arrange for the body to be shipped to Frank E. Campbell. She’s too busy demanding that her distraught hostess scrape the salt off the saltines and drag the TV set into the living room. As the ultra-self-deluded and downright scatterbrained nuisance Doreen, the brainy, pragmatic, hands-on Ms. Thomas struggles valiantly with a role that would have been better suited for Ms. May herself, but she does have the best lines: “Am I being too awful? I can never tell” and “I don’t have the depth to feel this bad.”
Carla’s mother and husband eventually arrive, too late to breathe any life into a play that is dead on arrival, but Doreen plunges on in a Faulknerian stream of consciousness that eventually lulls the audience to sleep. Incapable of feeling grief, remorse, sadness or compassion for anyone but herself, Doreen talks under and over everyone, but hears nothing (“I’m so sorry to break in on your argument. I know how I feel when waiters do it”). A little of this indulgence goes a long way. By the time the evening’s only insightful punch line is finally delivered (“America has become a reality show—and nobody will change the channel”) the audience is too bored to respond. The play deserves no attempt at evaluation because nothing of any impact ever happens. It doesn’t even have an ending. As a writer, Ms. May has had her ups and downs (Ishtar almost destroyed comedy as a viable movie genre, and I’m still reeling from her offensively shabby adaptation of La Cage aux Folles, flushed down the toilet of deprecating homophobia as The Birdcage). But as an actor, she is second to none. One of the funniest scenes ever committed to movie posterity was the inspired sequence in A New Leaf when she was trapped in that torturous wedding gown, reducing the audience to exhilarating hysterics. No humor of corresponding magnitude is ever on view here, and either there’s something wrong with Ms. May’s computer, or she wrote this nonplay with a few fingers missing.