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Review: Relatively Speaking: Bad Things Come in Threes (Or at Least Twos)

Sitting in the audience at Relatively Speaking, you can almost hear the producers’ wheels turning, hear the faint rumblings of the boardroom conversations and crackly late-night cell phone calls that brought the show to fruition.

“Well,” says one to the other, “All these writers have pedigree. And New Yorkers love pedigree. This will be that New York show.”

Pedigree! And Oscars out the ass! And fame and fortune on a faraway, sunnier coast in a bubblegum pink place called Los Angeles! Because anything born of that great place clearly does well on Broadway, right?

To the credit of those producers, a trio of one-act plays by Ethan Coen, Elanie May, and Woody Allen does not, at the outset, seem like a bad, or even a half-bad idea. These are some of the most talented writers on the planet, folks who deal mightily in the kind of erudite, brain-engaging stuff that does win Oscars, and titillates the city-dwelling, corduroy-elbow crowd.

And ultimately, the producers got that part right. Relatively Speaking, which opened on Thursday night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, is a total corduroy-elbow show. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. We can’t all spend our theatergoing lives slingshotting our panties at the stage over a hunky blond singing a power ballad, and people who walk around with wrinkly copies of The New Yorker in their pockets are, more or less, the best people on the planet. They are why I live in New York. The prospect of growing up to be that person is, in the grand scheme, far less depressing than other American alternatives.

So you’d think I’d love Relatively Speaking, then. All those smart people in a room together! Yeah, not so much. As Julie Taymor and Bono have taught us, things can get kind of fucked up when you put too much genius in one place. Of course, in the case of Relatively Speaking, very little of the writers’ collective pedigree has much to do with the stage. This is Ethan Coen’s first Broadway play. Neither Elaine May nor Woody Allen has seen huge success on the Broadway stage, and their earlier attempts at conquering midtown Manhattan happened years ago.

The worst of the offenders here is Ethan Coen, whose one act, “Talking Cure”, leads off Relatively Speaking on a relatively crappy foot. Split into two parts, the play first shows us a convict and a therapist talking in prison. Then, after a scene change, we see a bickering husband and his pregnant wife futzing over some ruined dinner plans. And that’s really about it. Bereft of beautiful cinematography, a haunting score, meaning-making camera trickery, and his brother’s familiar collaboration, Coen’s words feel flat and empty in ways that they never do on the big screen. For those under the age of 60 who were hoping that Coen’s presence would add some darkness, or edge, or truly contemporary kick to Relatively Speaking – I mean, dude wrote The Big Lebowski; come on – prepare for some massive disappointment.

Woody Allen’s piece, “Honeymoon Motel”, will not win any prizes for being forward-thinking either. Granted, Woody Allen hasn’t written anything truly edgy in twenty-five years, so few will walk into the theater with anything resembling that expectation. But a modern audience might dare to hope for a Woody Allen play that isn’t just about Woody Allen’s boring (and mildly gross!) old foibles.

Check out what “Honeymoon Motel” is about: A young woman who runs away with her step-father-in-law on her wedding day. She’s beautiful and young and stupid. He’s old and a lout. Their family is nuts, and deeply disapproving. And the last word is finally had by a pizza guy who delivers (har har!) a treatise on love, and how people should just accept love, regardless of the illogic – or seeming inappropriateness – of the circumstance.


Did you really just write a play about how we’re all supposed to be cool about you marrying your 22-year-old sort-of stepdaughter? Something I had, frankly, kind of forgotten about until this very moment? I was fully prepared to leave that outside of the theater, and now that I’m so soundly reminded of its existence, my only thought is that it’s still TOTALLY ICKY AND WEIRD. It’s also totally icky and weird in the play. That’s true even without considering Woody’s personal life. Uncomfortable much?

P.S. A Lorena Bobbit joke? In 2011?

Anyway, Elaine May. Poor Elaine! If only she had better company up on that stage.

Of the three plays presented in Relatively Speaking, it is only Elaine May’s that feels fully-formed and meaningful, and like it won’t make you tear your hair out in fistfuls. Part of the credit goes to May’s formidable leading lady, Marlo Thomas, who plays Doreen, a hapless heiress who’s gobsmacked by the death of her elderly husband. With no one else to turn to, Doreen heads to the only place she’s ever known safety and comfort – her beloved childhood nanny. Well, actually, she heads to the slouch-y apartment of her nanny’s daughter, who’s now in her forties and dealing with some personal difficulty of her own.

Thomas plays Doreen’s privilege and cluelessness to great effect, both as comic relief and as tragedy. In one scene, we see her clutching a pillow and gleefully watching old sitcoms, her hair tied in pigtails like a little girl, and later weeping over her husband’s coffin in disbelief, unable to fully process the fact that her life cannot be perfect or pain-free.

If only all three plays could have found the time or space for a similar amount of actual emotion – instead of just going through the motions. Instead of three acts with Woody, Elaine, and Ethan, I’d have settled for just two with Elaine.

Photo: Joan Marcus

Tickets provided by the production.

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