The three new one-acts combined into a Broadway show

Posted: October 20, 2011

The three new one-acts combined into a Broadway show called Relatively Speaking come across as a comedic evolution in time-lapse. It all goes by in barely more than two hours, beginning with the subtle, ending with the zany.

We start with writer/filmmaker Ethan Coen's "Talking Cure," a facile piece that ups the sharp comic ante as it progresses. After a four-minute break, we're into classic Elaine May, a piece called "George Is Dead," with more nuance and bigger laughs as it turns from a character study into a poignant scenario that works.

Then, after intermission, comes a rip-roaring comedy that harnesses the sensibilities of the first two works. It's Woody Allen's wildly funny "Honeymoon Motel," a piece built for big laughs, with surprises from first to last. It's a great second half of the evening. Leave 'em laughing? It can't miss.

I admire all three, at all three levels. Comedy is, after all, an amorphous notion; just try explaining a joke. My Russian masseur tried the other day, parsing a joke popular in Odessa. I lay there unable to fathom its humor. He was laughing so hard the massage table rumbled.

That's how I was laughing at Allen's piece - it had me holding myself. "Honeymoon Motel" is the old Woody Allen, who tosses excitable one-liners onto his rich playground.

Allen's playlet is a portrait of dysfunction that brings to mind his young-man stand-up comedy. Unlike his stand-up, though, it's not largely all about him. Or is it? "Honeymoon Motel" is about a wedding night and extreme family complications that could be interpreted to mirror his own. I thought about this at the curtain call, about whether this possible autobiographical aspect was making me uncomfortable. But if I had any discomfort, really, it was from laughing so much.

Allen sends us off with his piece about a wedding night with a couple (Steve Guttenberg and Ari Graynor) who just can't wait to consummate the evening, and their extended families (plus Richard Libertini in a hilarious portrayal of a rabbi).

In the middle, May presents a woman who's become so entitled (Marlo Thomas), the only way she can handle her husband's death is to summon someone else (Lisa Emery) to do not just the funeral prep, but the grieving. Starting it off, Coen offers a newly-admitted mental hospital patient (Danny Hoch) who attempts to confuse his doctor (Jason Kravits) by stressing the obvious, and a crazy-pattern interchange between the patient's parents (Fred Melamed and Katherine Borowitz).

The evening is directed by John Turturro, who does a smooth job of staging these scripts by three heavyweights. The three works in Relatively Speaking are connected by the relative part - each is about families. They're also connected by dysfunction, that great spur of both comedy and drama. And they're connected in length: Hooray for stylish one-acts.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,

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