Fish in the Dark, the new Broadway comedy written by and starring Larry David, might as well be called Curb Your Enthusiasm: Live or Larry David and Friends. Whereas David plays himself (or at least a semi-fictional version of himself) on the popular HBO television series (which ran for eight seasons), here he portrays a guy named Norman Drexel. Even so, the bespectacled, balding David is playing the same sort of socially awkward, extremely inappropriate, befuddled, self-centered smartass/idiot.
Hardly a great work of dramatic literature, Fish in the Dark harkens back to the silly, insubstantial Broadway comedies of the 1960s, full of one-dimensional characters and nonsensical farce (think of Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn or Abe Burrows’ Cactus Flower). We don’t tend to see these shows on Broadway anymore since we have so many television sitcoms that serve the same function.
In Fish in the Dark, following the death of his father, Norman concocts an elaborate scheme with his housekeeper (an underutilized Rosie Perez) to convince his overbearing mother (a comically sublime Jayne Houdyshell) to move in with his brother instead of him. Rita Wilson (who left the production after it opened due to breast cancer but has since returned) has a nonessential role as Norman’s ex-wife.
David’s abilities as a stage actor are limited (especially his vocal projection), but he is nevertheless idiosyncratic, relatable and sort of endearing. You may not want to see him do Shakespeare, but you do leave the theater wanting to hang out with the guy. In one hell of a crowd-pleasing moment, David delivers his trademark “prett-ay, prett-ay, pretty good” line. Now that’s giving ‘em what they want.
Anna D. Shapiro, known for her work on raw, gritty plays like August: Osage County and This Is Our Youth, is the director. Perhaps she was meant to add some artistic credibility. In any event, Fish in the Dark is essentially just a showcase for David, with the other characters serving as stick figures for him to play off. Without him, there would be no point to the play. It would be casting someone else to play him on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Wait, I take that back. There is someone who can take over for David: Jason Alexander, and he will indeed be taking over for David on June 9. Alexander played George Costanza on Seinfeld, which David co-created. David more or less modeled George Costanza on himself. Seinfeld, you might say, is Curb Your Enthusiasm with a laugh track instead of curses. But unlike David, Alexander does have stage chops (he even won a Tony Award before he won popularity through Seinfeld), and it will be interesting to see whether he tries to bring some kind of depth to the character.
Fish in the Dark did not receive a Tony nomination. Strangely enough, the show’s producers may have actually been relieved about that. Fish in the Dark has been selling out and grossing more than $1 million (a huge feat for a non-musical) throughout its run. Since it got no nominations, the producers have no obligation to provide complimentary tickets to Tony voters. Sounds prett-ay, prett-ay, pretty profitable!
It’s interesting how another insubstantial, old-fashioned light comedy, Living on Love, which starred Renee Fleming and Douglas Sills as a sparring married couple from the opera world, was a total flop. It closed almost immediately after it too received no Tony nominations. So why is Fish in the Dark a top-seller while Living on Love was a flop? To be frank, Fleming comes from the opera and not cable television. Also, Fish in the Dark, in its shamelessness and crudeness, had some very funny moments. Living on Love, on the other hand, came off as a moth-eaten relic better suited for Miami dinner theater.