Very funny. Occasionally very, very funny. Four-stars funny. If that’s all you need to know about Larry David’s Fish In The Dark, his debut as a Broadway twofer—playwright and actor—then read no more. Take a flier, be my guest.
Or maybe not. I’m not usually one to put a price on art but you may want to know a little more before shelling out—let’s see, I’m looking at $1,174.50 for a pair to next Wednesday’s matinee on the legal scalping market—for a show that’s as good as some episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld. (If that seems like praising with a damned feint, you’ve caught my drift.) Of course in this case you’re getting the added thrill of seeing Larry David shrug, blink, holler, wince, pace and blurt, up close and personal.
As a fan of both TV series, I can understand the attraction. I’m with you. On the other hand, to sample an image from the show itself—a dining table laden with curated paninis, baby micro-greens, artisanal bagels, organic crudités and Diet Coke—the show is too much of a muchness.
Like many a time-honored comedy, it’s about death and sex. Before we’ve even met the dramatis personae, with the curtain still down, we hear a telephone ring in the middle of the night and David’s panicked voice crying out, “Oh my God, who’s dead?” It’s funny/familiar, which is this writer’s métier. What ensues, still unseen behind the curtain, is banter between David’s whiny smart Norman Drexel and his wife, Brenda (played droll-flirting-with-smugness by the expert Rita Wilson, in her best stage performance) that turns the opening death joke into an even funnier sex joke. Curtain up!
We’re in California and the expiration of the Drexel patriarch ignites the usual familial passions of pain, remorse, loss, self-reflection—I mean conniving, pettiness, grandstanding, regression and plenty of eating. Life’s Big Questions come to the fore: Was Dad (Jerry Adler) addressing Norman or his slicker brother Arthur (the superbly smooth Ben Shenkman) when he expressed his deathbed wish to take in mother, Gloria, so she won’t be alone? (“You.” “No, you.”) Will anything change Gloria (Jayne Houdyshell, a treasure as always) from being the Jewish Mother From Hell? (The answer is yes, and I’ll only say that of the play’s two transformative themes, it isn’t death that changes her.)
Also: Did Papa really with his dying breath leave his prized Rolex to pret-ty unreliable Uncle Harry (Kenneth Tigar) just to flip the bird at everyone, including shifty Uncle Stewie (shifty Lewis J. Stadlen)? And did Norman’s teenage niece Jessica (Rachel Resheff) write her brilliant eulogy or did she have help from Arthur (“Profound? That’s a very big word,” Larry says to the poor girl at the shiva-with-a-groaning board). And who is this college-bound son (Jake Cannavale) of the housekeeper Fabiana (Rosie Perez, playing Rosie Perez very convincingly) who’s the spit and image of…well, you can probably figure that one out.
Through it all, and under the fleet direction of Anna D. Shapiro, Larry David pays Larry David, also very convincingly. (If you saw Charlie Rose’s train-wreck of an interview on last week’s 60 Minutes, you have an idea of how quickly shtick can grow rancid). A half-hour seems just the right amount of time you want to spend with these folks on any given evening. A quiver full of nasty arrows find the bulls-eye. Of course, this is the age of binge-watching, so two hours of shtick can be satisfying. Or give you heartburn.