Friday, October 21, 2011

Relatively Speaking @ Brooks Atkinson Theatre

Relatively speaking, three wrongs do not make a right.  This phrase still stands true for the new Broadway piece, Relatively Speaking, currently playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.  Made up of three One-Act comedies from playwright greats Ethan Coen, Elaine May, and Woody Allen, Relatively Speaking looks to explore the themes of the underdog; unfortunately, this underdog did not rise to the occasion.  Featuring a large ensemble that just never appeared to jell, technical elements that felt ignored, and simple direction that had the characters never fully being able to develop, Relatively Speaking has an interesting concept that simply never gets fully realized.
Opening up the play is “Talking Cure” by playwright Ethan Coen (films No Country for Old Men and True Grit).  With a similar twist to the Robert De Niro Analyze This series, “Talking Cure” looks at the relationship between a patient and his therapist.  After a recent blow up at his job, the patient is placed under medical watch and assigned a doctor who has a few problems of his own to sort out.  Before long, however, it becomes clear that the patient’s problems stem back to before birth as his parents turn out to be a bitter quarreling couple who have lost the love in their lives.  While the piece had its overall moments, Coen could have dug a lot deeper into his characters problems, lives, and souls.  The acting duo was Danny Hoch (television’s Nurse Jackie) as the patient and Jason Kravits (The Drowsy Chaperone) as the doctor.  While the two worked well together and the material did not give them very much to work with, both actors played their respective parts very stereotypically – the patient goes from gangster to graduate as the doctor goes in the reverse direction.  Thus, the audience was left feeling a bit worried at the conclusion of piece one.
Piece two is “George is Dead” by playwright Elaine May (films The Birdcage and Primary Colors).  When one puts a woman who feels everything and a woman who feels nothing in the same room, there is guaranteed drama and craziness.  Carla has major mommy issues and is on the verge of divorce number two.  The last thing that she needed was empty headed Doreen knocking on her door to confess that her husband, George, has just died.  With a strange dynamic between the two women that causes constant mixed feelings, the audience almost feels the need to pick what corner they wish to stand on – Carla (played by Lisa Emery – The Women) or Doreen.  The obvious answer is Doreen, mainly because the charter is played by the talented Marlo Thomas (television’s That Girl) who steals not only this piece, but the other two pieces as well.  Thomas took hold of her character, made strong choices, and simply owned the stage.  She took the audience on a journey and captivated their hearts.  The only problem was that the piece unfortunately had to come to an end in order for and intermission to take place.  Thomas is to be commended for giving a beautiful performance despite the lack of support from the cast around her.  “George is Dead,” much like “Talking Cure,” leaves the audience hoping that one of the masters of comedy, Woody Allen, will be the savior of this play.
“Honeymoon Hotel,” by playwright Woody Allen (films Annie Hall and Midnight in Paris), is a quick, funny piece that is one hundred percent over acted – bring what could have been a brilliant one-act down to an average piece of theatre.  What appears to be an average night for a happy-go-lucky bride and groom soon turns into a family crisis.  Affair after affair is revealed, a rabbi keeps handing out eulogies, and a wise pizza man puts all to rest.  The usual Allen humor, antics, and mishap are all intertwined in a wonderfully written script.  The problem, however, lies in the acting.  While the supporting cast, featuring Caroline Aaron (film Edward Scissorhands) as the bitter wife and Julie Kavner (voice of Marge on The Simpsons) as the sharp witted mother-in-law, was strong, the two leads were way too over the top and corny.  Steve Guttenberg (film Three Men and a Baby) and Ari Graynor (Little Dog Laughed) played opposite one another as the love birds with a very big surprise to share.  The direction both actors took was very characterized and untrue to real life.  This then forced the others around them to be over the top even when it was not called for in the script.  This over all cheese fest left the audience felling a bit unsure as to why they paid to see an Allen one-act get fluffed to the point of bursting.
Staging and presenting a play made up of three one-acts is not an easy feet; unfortunately, this piece needed some more love and attention.  In the hands of actor great John Turturro (films Mr. Deeds and Transformers series), Relatively Speaking fell flat – missing the Broadway WOW factor that a show usually comes with.  Standard blocking left three pieces with little movement; therefore, it never really allowed advances in character or plot development.  It just left the pieces feeling unattended and abandoned.  To add to this, sloppy lighting design by Kenneth Posner (Catch Me If You Can) and poor sound design by Carl Casella (Baby It’s You!) left the audience feeling a bit cheated.  Strange angles of lights left awkward dark patches and shadows while awkward microphone placement allowed for dropped lines and annoying static.  To make up for this, scenic designer Santo Loquasto (Fences) designed three gorgeous sets for this production.  Each set had a fully developed concept and view bring the ideas and words of the playwrights off of the pages and onto the stage.  While the scenic elements were pleasant, it was not enough to bring this play into the world of truly stunning theatre.
Relatively Speaking can be commended for its attempted to bring the Off-Off-Broadway scene to the mainstream theatre world.  However, with a worn out theme, plots that never really lifted off the ground, and overall dull technical elements, Relatively Speaking is not the next big Broadway hit.
Review By: Ryan Oliveti

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