If ever you needed reminding that relatives are simply maddening, Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen are ready with a refresher.
Each has written a one-act play about families and their discontents that have been packaged together as "Relatively Speaking," which opened Thursday on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
The plays are sometimes poignant, sometimes sad and often hysterical. To enlist Goldilocks in the evaluation, the play by Coen seems a little underbaked and May's is a meandering downer, but Allen's is a romp that's just right. Director John Turturro has got great pacing and gets the most from his cast, but can't paper over the holes.
The cast of 15 is a motley bunch, including Caroline Aaron, Bill Army, Katherine Borowitz, Lisa Emery, Ari Graynor, Steve Guttenberg, Julie Kavner, Richard Libertini, Mark Linn-Baker, Fred Melamed, Patricia O'Connell, Grant Shaud and Marlo Thomas. Jason Kravits and Danny Hoch show up for two of the plays.
The first play, Cohen's "Talking Cure," is initially set in a mental institution, where a psychologist (Kravits) is trying to treat Larry, a former postal worker played by Hoch, but is making little headway since the patient has a form of logic that rivals the doctor's. After a few scenes of the two trying to get their points across, Cohen flashes back in time to the 1950s in order to introduce Larry's parents and perhaps explain why he's so argumentative — and now in a mental ward.
The mother (Borowitz) is pregnant with Larry and she and the father (Allen Lewis Rickman) argue about everything. Their conversation is peppered by references to Hitler and Heifetz, which listeners will note were also mentioned by Larry.
These two parts don't really mesh and Coen's play seems somewhat forced, reaching for meaning that isn't on the page. What at first seems like it will be a look at the complexity of sanity is dropped in favor of an exploration of paternal determinism.
The second play is "George Is Dead" by May and is benefited by a great turn by Thomas, who plays the clueless and very rich Doreen. Doreen has just learned her husband has died in an avalanche in Aspen, Colo., and, not knowing who to turn to, finds herself at the apartment of her old nanny's daughter, Carla played by Emery.
It's not a good time for this crisis, since Carla is fighting with her husband (Shaud) about not putting him first in her life. Doreen requests that Carla scrape off the salt crystals from her saltines, be at her beck and call, and make all the funeral arrangements.
"I don't have the depth to feel this bad," Doreen says.
Even though it's just one act, May doesn't seem to know how to end her play. It descends into the very unfunny funeral and the tone shifts. Doreen, who created such laughter at the beginning, is now left as a mute spectator as Carla fights with her husband. Carla's mother — the nanny — also appears too late to have much of an impact.
After an intermission, it's Allen's time and his frothy play "Honeymoon Motel" is a thankful farce, a showcase for Allen's dry, absurdist brand of humor. It is easily the most coherent of the three and boasts the biggest cast of 10 actors.
Set on a wedding night, the play grows more insane by the minute. Neither the groom (Guttenberg) nor the bride (Graynor) are what they seem. As they order pizza and sip martinis, the play reveals its crazy twists.
A tacky motel wedding suite becomes the place where a group of slightly crazed people collect: The groom's psychiatrist (Kravits, again), a tipsy rabbi (a wonderful Libertini), a pair of dysfunctional in-laws (Kavner and Linn-Baker), a friend (Shaud), an angry wife (Aaron), an even angrier fiance (Army) and a pizza delivery guy (Hoch, again), who turns out to be the voice of reason.
"The point is that from delivering pies and dealing with people's impatience, their hunger, their tipping habits, I've learned that life is short and there are no rules," says the pizza guy.
The scenic design by Santo Loquasto is effective: the suggestion of a cage and a dinner table for the first play; a cramped apartment for the second; and a lurid hotel room for the third. Especially nice is the back wall of family snapshots that are supposed to frame the show.
Squeezing three playwrights into a single show is dangerous business, particularly when they're all tacking the reality of relatives, but only Allen seems to have emerged the stronger for the effort.