The idea of watching three short comedies written by Woody Allen, Elaine May, and Ethan Coen, respectively sounds more than fine on paper. And there are times during Relatively Speaking when you are reminded that the combined credit list of these big-screen deities of drollness includes Annie Hall, Heaven Can Wait, and Fargo. Alas, there are times when you are reminded that these are also the folks who brought us Whatever Works, the Ladykillers remake, and Ishtar.
While it is easy to imagine the three authors of Relatively Speaking spending a convivial cocktail hour in one another’s company, their playlets mix less well and the most lasting impression is one of dissonance. Coen’s opening pair of linked two-handers, Talking Cure, details a series of verbally pugnacious therapy sessions between Jason Kravits’ doctor and Danny Hoch’s incarcerated patient before flashing back decades to an even more antagonistic conversation between the prisoner’s parents (Katherine Borowitz and Allen Lewis Rickman, who replaced actor Fred Malamud just a couple of weeks before opening night). May’s George Is Dead has a far more delicate and tragic tone, as Lisa Emery’s less-than-wealthy Carla plays reluctant host to Marlo Thomas’ newly widowed Doreen, the rich ex-ward of Carla’s nanny mother. Finally, Allen’s frothy Honeymoon Motel is a bedroom farce, and a literal one at that, as the members of a wedding party (including Steve Guttenberg, Ari Graynor, and Julie Kavner) reunite in a trashy motel suite to rake over the day’s events, and one another.
There are moments to savor in each play, particularly because of the performances. Hoch and Kravits are terrific sparring partners in Talking Cure, and Guttenberg is a beguilingly boyish presence in Honeymoon Motel. Allen also gifts his cast with some choice gags, even if their choice-ness sometimes dissipates through repetition. Moreover, Honeymoon Hotel doesn’t so much climax as collapse. As directed by John Turturro, making his Broadway directorial debut, the performers seem to mill around like rock stars at the end of a charity concert, waiting for their chance in the spotlight.
Indeed, this trio of comedies most resembles the output of some supergroup whose members have decided to save their A game for solo projects. Only May seems to have really put her heart and soul into her one-act, yet even her effort has the whiff of a more ambitious project she ultimately didn’t follow through on. Relatively Speaking is, comparatively speaking, far from any of its creators’ finest work. C+
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