I never thought the Cohen Brothers were particularly skilled at comedy or one-liners; I still don’t. Talking Cure, the first one-act in a series of three (Elaine May and Woody Allen wrote the second two), is written solely by Ethan Cohen, and isn’t particularly funny or particularly good.
(Above: That Actress Marlo Thomas, with Lisa Emery, in “George Is Dead.” Photo by Joan Marcus.)
While it revolves around a Doctor (Jason Kravitz) and his Patient (Danny Hoch), to delve into its clichéd and inconsistent plot would be to give the playwright far too much credit. It picks up a bit when the Mother and Father appear (Katherine Borowitz and Fred Melamed), but there’s no particular reason to have it on this bill except to lure in audiences with the Cohen name. Fittingly, it’s short.
“A neurotic Jewish guy walks into the frame…” is the set-up for pretty much every Woody Allen comedy, and Honeymoon Hotel is no exception. The formula is comfortable in its old-New York charm, even if it’s no longer the Manhattan we live in, and rather stale in its conceit. Here, Steve Guttenberg charmingly plays Jerry, the middle-age neurotic Jewish guy who walks into a honeymoon suite with Nina (Ari Graynor), havoc nipping at their polished wedding-shoe heels.
The twists are funny, and it would be unkind to divulge them. Before the play ends, there have been some genuinely clever lines (and some that seem recycled) and some stand-out performances. Julie Kavner is delightful as the bride’s silently cynical mother, as is Caroline Aaron as the loudmouth groom’s mother. Graynor is perhaps the most impressive, since her role doesn’t have the automatic laughs built in; a lesser actor would let her looks sell the part. In between entrances and the usual Allen star-gazing (yes, it’s Mark Linn-Baker; yes, that’s Grant Shaud from Murphy Brown), there are debates over religion, intellectual values, life and death, older men and younger women, true art versus commerce, and everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Woody Allen’s 43 (to date) film plots. And yes, it’s enjoyable.
George Is Dead is the middle piece, and by far the best play. While it stumbles a bit midway, the serious comedy has two wonderful advantages missing from the other two works; Elaine May’s heartfelt writing and Marlo Thomas in the lead. May’s past credits include writing Heaven Can Wait and Ishtar—I’m not sure which resume listing made me laugh more. Here, she takes the subject of wealth and the middle class and manages to create a work that keeps you thinking beyond the curtain call, and even a little bit during Woody’s finale.
Marlo Thomas is on fire. That…voice is one of the most recognizable instruments in TV history, and it’s sheer bliss to watch her combine it with that manic energy to dive headfirst into the role of Doreen, an aging socialite who seems the polar opposite of the public Thomas. Doreen’s husband (he of the title) has died in a skiing accident, leading Doreen to seek solace with Carla (Lisa Emery), her former nanny’s daughter, who lives in a drab apartment (like Allen’s New York vision, this set also looks to be about 20 years old). Carla’s fighting with her husband, Michael (Shaud again, in an uninteresting role), and all of that’s secondary to what’s almost a monologue from a character who admits to not listening to others. Doreen downs booze and shrieks from cell phones, all the while managing to turn her husband’s death into her personal plight.
The beauty of the role—and Thomas’s performance—lies in that wonderful balance of sarcasm and empathy. You (and Carla) have to feel sorry for this woman, despite a desire to slap her in the face. In her over-dyed blond hair and party-dress, she is a child. When Doreen whines “I’m so tired of being young,” the line hits like a brick. Doreen has spent years lifting and filling and smoothing to look like an artificial real housewife, but somewhere inside she yearns to grow up. This is that too-rare theatrical performance that you can’t stop talking about; in part because there just might be a little Doreen in all of us. The underscored pain is, like all great comedy, outwardly hilarious.
All three plays are directed by another star, John Turturro, who keeps thing big and basic. It’s a directorial approach that also reflects a less-irreverent time, and, with these present plays, retro comfort works.
For more information and tickets, visit Broadway.com.