Three’s unfortunately not so charming in this evening of one-acts by Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen. The premise – an evening of crazy-family comedy by three masters of the genre – seems promising, as does the star-studded cast directed by the equally stellar John Turturro. But the result is disjointed and disappointing.
To be fair, it is a challenge to write a short humorous play that doesn’t feel indebted to sketch comedy or standup, especially when the topic is as eternal as ridiculous relatives. But these three at their best feel like overstretched SNL segments – and at their worst like discarded drafts from The Girlie Show.
In Ethan Coen’s Talking Cure, a psychologist (Jason Kravits) and a deeply disgruntled postal worker (an effectively disturbing Danny Hoch) now in a mental institution exchange repartee but not much insight. Eventually, the scene shifts to a prenatal primal scene in which the inmate’s parents (Allen Lewis Rickman and Katherine Boroowitz) bicker bitterly just prior to his birth. Is parental squabbling responsible for the inmate’s desire for peace? The pat inevitability of the answer detracts from the power of the combination of hostility and humor Hoch so aptly conveys in the early scenes.
Next, Elaine May’s weird, whimsical George Is Dead features a bewildered, selfish socialite named Doreen (Marlo Thomas) who, learning that her most recent husband has died and not knowing where else to seek comfort, descends upon the apartment of her childhood nanny’s daughter, Carla (Lisa Emery). Thomas as the spoiled, self-absorbed new widow is strangely compelling – May writes her and Thomas plays her as an alien, not malicious, but utterly incapable of understanding the less-than-rich – but Carla is so clumsily drawn that even Emery can’t make her a consistent character. The stately serenity of Patricia O’Connell as the aged Nanny who sacrificed her relationship with Carla to take care of Doreen, adds still another surreal grace note to the proceedings, but ultimately, the fantastic concoction falls flat.
And the last of the three is Woody Allen’s Honeymoon Motel. The action unfolds at a tacky motel, where what appear to be two newlyweds (Steve Guttenberg and Ari Graynor) gleefully prepare for their honeymoon night. Gradually, it’s revealed that the man is in fact the groom’s father, who has run off with the bride. One by one, the rest of the wedding party, from the mother of the bride (Julie Kavner) to the jilted groom himself (Bill Army) shows up in hot pursuit, and they all mill around the stage to very little effect. One can only assume there’s meant to be a nod to Allen’s own critics in this May-December elopement, but the script lacks the insight to pull that off. The banality would be forgivable if at least the play were funny – delivering more than a few decent laughs garnered largely by the comic chops of the actors.
In the end, the strongest family resemblance among these three plays is that they all fall far short of their authors’ considerable talents. As for the audience: three strikes, you’re out.