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Fish in the Dark Review: Larry David on Death and Recycling

Fish in the DarkCort TheatreFish in the Dark,” which marks Larry David’s Broadway debut as a writer and performer – indeed his first stage performance since the eighth grade — feels like a couple of episodes of his TV series, Curb Your Enthusiasm. There’s the sixth episode of the third season, for example, entitled The Special Section, when Larry David’s mother dies, and he stumbles upon the realization that her death is a great excuse to get out of all kinds of obligations that he would rather avoid. It has some funny lines, a cast of 17, including guest star Martin Scorsese, and is half an hour long.

“Fish in the Dark” starts with the news that Sidney Drexler (Jerry Adler) is dying. He’s father to Norman Drexler (the name Larry David gives himself, although it’s the “Larry David” we’re familiar with — in jacket and sneakers and large shrugs.)  A deathbed scene leads to a dispute with Norman’s brother Arthur (Ben Shenkman) and unleashes the antics and complications of various and sundry other relatives and associates. There are 18 members of the cast, including Rita Wilson as Norman’s wife and Rosie Perez as his maid. It has some funny lines, and is two hours long.

That Larry David’s Broadway comedy recycles some of Larry David’s TV comedy is hardly a sin; indeed, the audience laughed the loudest when he uttered a trademark line from Curb Your Enthusiasm.

At its best, both the episodes and the Broadway play, currently at the Cort Theater, are not just armored vehicles shooting one-liners. They involve a knowing exploration of the inappropriate (but secretly common) reactions to a death in the family. “The only time I feel truly alive is at funerals,” one relative (Lewis J. Stadlen) remarks.  “It’s like life’s an elimination tournament and I’ve moved on to the next round.”

But this might imply more substance than actually exists. “Fish in the Dark” is the lightest of entertainments, so much so that it’s almost shocking how much deep talent, on stage and behind the scenes, is associated with this show. The director is Anna D. Shapiro, soon to take the helm as artistic director at Steppenwolf, the director on Broadway of This is Our Youth, and The Motherfucker with the Hat, and August:Osage County (!) for which she won a Tony Award. The set designer Todd Rosenthal also won a Tony for August: Osage County (!)

Like Woody Allen, David for some reason replaces what many see as his cutting edge sensibility when writing for the screen with hoary, lascivious Borscht Belt shtick when writing for the stage. Indeed, the recycling that is in “Fish in the Dark” doesn’t stop with David’s own material. It’s remarkable how many aspects of “Fish in the Dark” called forth unbidden other artists or shows – ones that did it better.

The TV-familiarity of the whole enterprise. “The Pee-Wee Herman Show,” a 90-minute Broadway play, catered to fans of Paul Reuben’s former TV series “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” The audience roared at every allusion.

The animation on the curtain before the show began (a blinking fish) and then in-between the scenes (letters cleverly moving around a projection of a death certificate.) The best thing about Wonderland, the show inspired by Alice in Wonderland, was the curtain decorated with John Tenniel’s familiar illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s book, punctuated by animations of Carroll’s words and phrases, swirling around the characters.

The huge cast of mostly familiar faces, who each get little more than a comic character trait or a one-liner or two. The current “It’s Only A Play” suggests this. Woody Allen’s  “Honeymoon Motel,” part of the disappointing package of three plays, “Relatively Speaking,” took place in a tacky honeymoon suite and involved a series of knocks on the door followed by the entrance one after the other in what used to be called zany characters one-upping each other in zaniness.

But in both these cases, the playwright was savvy enough about the demands of the stage that they used just one set. “Fish in the Dark” uses nearly half a dozen, all realistic-looking – or, more precisely, all looking like the kind of sound stage sets used in Curb Your Enthusiasm. The switch from set to set – the hospital, waiting room, a hospital room, a funeral home, the living room of Larry David’s home, a bedroom in Larry David’s home, and back again – explains those curtain animations spread throughout the show, set to brief jazzy compositions by David Yazbeck.

As for the cast itself, every one is first rate — and I’ve seen nearly every single one in something better. Most are reduced to playing a single joke or stereotype. The fabulous Jane Houdyshell (Follies, Harrison, Tx. etc.) portrays Norman’s stereotypical Jewish mother. When she faints, because she thinks she sees the ghost of her (now) dead husband as a young man, Norman tries to rouse her by saying: “There’s schmutz everywhere! Company’s coming!”

Jake Cannavale is making his Broadway debut as that young man, Diego — who resembles Sidney as a young man because (I suppose this is a spoiler alert) Sidney was his father, with the maid, Fabiana (portrayed by Rosie Perez.) Cannavale is Bobby Cannavale’s 19-year-old son — the last time critics are likely to mention this, because he is an impressive talent in his own right…which viewers of Nurse Jackie already knew.

Jonny Orsini, who made such a splash in his Broadway debut as Nathan Lane’s love interest in The Nance and went on to portray Malcolm in Ethan Hawke’s Macbeth, here portrays Greg, the boyfriend of Norman’s daughter Natalie, who is portrayed by Molly Ranson, an actress who made her Broadway debut in “August: Osage County.” (!) Natalie speaks with an affected Eliza Doolittle accent because she’s rehearsing for a community theater production of “My Fair Lady.”  That’s more or less the sum of her character. Greg seems to exist only because he is the kind of friendly sort who puts his hands on people when he talks to them —  which gives Larry David’s Norman the opportunity to keep on shoving Greg’s hand off of him. I’ll admit it: This made me laugh. But it’s also symbolic of the show as a whole. Larry David surrounds himself with talent in “Fish in the Dark,” but there would be no show without Larry David reacting to them — which is surely why he has no understudy. The show might as well be called “Larry David in the Dark.”

Fish in the Dark

At the Cort Theater

By Larry David; directed by Anna D. Shapiro; music by David Yazbek; sets by Todd Rosenthal; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; wigs by Alan D’Angerio

Cast: Larry David (Norman Drexel), Rita Wilson (Brenda Drexel), Rosie Perez (Fabiana Melendez), Ben Shenkman (Arthur Drexel), Lewis H. Stadlen (Stewie Drexel), Jake Cannavale (Diego Melendez), Marylouise Burke (Rose Kanter), Jerry Adler (Sidney Drexel), Jenn Lyon (Michelle), Jonny Orsini (Greg), Molly Ranson (Natalie Drexel), Maria Elena Ramirez (Nurse Ramirez), Rachel Resheff (Jessica Drexel), Joel Rooks (Dr. Meyers), Jeff Still (Jay Leventhal), Kenneth Tigar (Harry Kanter), Richard Topol (Dr. Stiles) and Jayne Houdyshell (Gloria Drexel).

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $49.00 – $275.00

Update: Fish in the Dark, now starring Jason Alexander, has been extended until August 1, 2015

Fish in the Dark is scheduled to close on June 7, 2015. It reportedly had the largest advance sale of any play in the history of Broadway, so it’s possible it will be extended, albeit most likely with cast changes.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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