Americans love quantity. They prefer novels to short stories, symphonic to chamber music, feature films to short subjects. They put up with today’s, economics-induced favorite theatrical format, the 90-minute, intermission less play, only because that is mostly what there is.
Well, now there is “Relatively Speaking,” a bill of three one-“acters.” The one-act play, never very popular, makes, when three are packaged together, a full-length evening. Moreover, this trio comes from respected sources.
The first, item, “Talking Cure,” is by Ethan Coen, a sometimes playwright, but , with his brother, a frequent and successful filmmaker. A Patient in a mental hospital is in a session with the Doctor. (They go by such generic names.) Doctor is having a tough time with the ornery and argumentative Patient, who has committed a dastardly attack on an old lady at the Post Office, where he works. Among other things, Patient wants to reverse the roles of patient and shrink.
This soon yields to another couple, Father and Mother of the Patient. They are at the dinner table fiercely squabbling away, which is supposed to explain their grown offspring’s criminal behavior. There are a few sporadic laughs in both duologues, but only just more than hen’s teeth. As Patient, Danny Hoch is outstanding.
Next comes Elaine May’s “George Is Dead,” the longest, indeed overlong, piece. It goes from repetitious and vastly exaggerated satire to shorter, unpersuasive pathos, with plausibility throughout barely minimal, though any form other than outrageous farce, could use a little more of it.
Doreen, a spoiled rich bitch, bursts in on Carla, her erstwhile nanny’s daughter, in the middle of the night. In far-away Aspen, her husband has died in a skiing accident. She cannot squeeze out a single tear; what floors her is her panicky inability to make the necessary arrangements. She has an incessant stream of related and other escalating demands, including to be put up for the night in Carla’s one-bed apartment.
The bullied friend obliges, even though she has her own problems with Michael, her new second husband, off giving a political speech. Returning, he is scandalized by Doreen’s usurping presence, which has unexpected consequences. Other far-fetched developments follow, making for even greater implausibility.
Lisa Emery is wonderful as the tyrannized Carla, but Doreen, to be even a mite credible, let alone tolerable, would require a very great actress, which Marlo Thomas never was. As Michael, Grant Shaud is saddled with a ridiculous role, yet in the end we get another, even less likely arrival.
Woody Allen’s contribution, “Honeymoon Motel,” is more absurd yet, but being an unabashedly outrageous farce able to get away with it. It’s the immediate aftermath of a skewed wedding, where the groom’s father has stepped into his son’s shoes with the bride’s fervent cooperation. After that, every sort of cataclysm befalls the two involved dysfunctional Jewish families, plus the fantastical rabbi who performed the ceremony.
If not much else, we get a number of pungent one-liners, and effective performances from, among others, Steve Guttenberg, Ari Graynor, Caroline Aaron, Julie Kavner, Richard Libertini and, as a philosophical pizza delivery man, once again Danny Hoch. John Tuturro ‘s breakneck direction aptly contributes to the torrential chaos, as does Santo Loquasto’s décor, climaxing in a marvelously tacky bridal suite. The piece clinches the desiderated quantity; the overall quality, however, is another matter.
In “Sons of the Prophet,” Stephen Karam presents a somewhat different dysfunctional family: the Maronite Lebanese-American, financially challenged Douaihys, ever so distantly related to Kahlil Gibran. Father has died from aftereffects of a nocturnal car accident, a collision with a decoy stag that Vin, 18, a black football star, has mischievously planted mid-road.
Surviving are the two, often-confrontational sons, injured athlete Joseph, 29, and would-be college student Charles, 18 both gay. Also Uncle Bill, 74, mostly wheelchair-bound and hugely xenophobic and cantankerous. Joseph, who turns out afflicted beyond his sports injuries, works for Gloria, 59, a hugely eccentric widow who runs a book-packaging outfit, at a wholly unsuitable job solely for the medical insurance.
There is also Timothy, 29, a journalist snowbound in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where the action is laid, and any number of surrounding places have tantalizingly Middle-Eastern names. That emphasizes the conflicted ways of this double-bottomed family, complicated by Gloria’s comic but annoying meddlesomeness and Timothy’s unwelcome attempts to write up the Duaihys’s past and present.
A judge delays the repentant Vin’s trial because the youth is needed for the impending important football game, and the siblings befriend him, which causes further trouble with non-P.C.Uncle Bill. There are other characters (doctor, physician’s attendants, college board members) all female, who contribute to the motley proceedings.
“Sons of a Prophet” is often amusing, sometimes contrived, and always minor stuff. But Karam, clearly of Lebanese descent, brings in all sorts of ethnic and religious matters, even bits of the ancestral language, to good effect.
Peter DuBois has vividly directed on Anna Louizos’s cleverly shifting scenery, and with an on-target cast. Santino Fontana and Chris Perfetti as the very different siblings, Joanna Gleason as the droll nuisance Gloria, Yusef Bulos as the troublesome uncle, Charles Socarides as the prying Timothy, Jonathan Louis Dent as Vin, and Lizbeth Mackay and Dee Nelson in several roles, couldn’t be better. Make your expectations modest, and the play will amply reward you.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.