Fish in the Dark: Theater review by David Cote
Checking out Larry David’s debut as a Broadway playwright and performer, I did not expect to be thinking of ancient Greek tragedy. Comedy, sure, but I figured past influences would stretch back to Allen, not Aeschylus. And yet here’s kvetchy urinal salesman Norman Drexel (David), bolting onstage after seeing his mother unconscious and naked in her bedroom, performing mute spasms of oedipal horror—face a gaping mask of shock; arms sawing the air in crazy, rigid patterns. Such ritual gestures would fit Athens circa 403 BCE, although I don’t think any Attic bard ever penned the plangent cry “You fucked my mother?!?”
Fish in the Dark may be new, but its comic ingredients are classically aged: horny old ladies, greedy relatives, philandering dads, luscious blonds and preposterous deceptions. The DNA has been passed down from Aristophanes to Plautus, Wycherley and sex farces popular on Broadway in the ’60s. David’s contribution is mainly to be himself, the everyputz he played on Curb Your Enthusiasm: cheerfully cynical, blithely petty and amazed that anyone should be offended by his honesty.
The tissue-thin plot of Fish concerns the dying wishes of Norman’s father (Jerry Adler), who wants mother Gloria (Jayne Houdyshell) to live with one of the sons. Norman is sure Pop meant her to go with brother Arthur (Ben Shenkman, a seething font of contempt). Arthur will have none of it. Rosie Perez shows up as a former cleaning lady with a secret past. To say any more would reveal the ridiculous zigzags of the plot, a contraption of equal neatness and silliness. As on Curb, David’s character has a sensible, long-suffering wife (Rita Wilson) whose eyeballs get a good, rolling workout.
Anna D. Shapiro stages the hybrid sitcom-farce for maximum shine, and the mix of seasoned actors with David’s breezy script (about three TV episodes’ worth of plot windup) results in a night of huge, rolling laughs. Many of them come from David’s idiosyncratic presence. He may lack subtlety or wit but makes up for it in indignant bluster and humor that sidles slyly to the edge of bad taste. Just as Jerry Seinfeld always seemed bemusedly out of place on his sitcom, surrounded by polished actors, David is broad and hammy amid stage pros, but that’s part of his gruff, goofy charm. Somehow he makes middle-school–level acting chops look like inspired clowning. The Greeks would be proud.—David Cote
Cort Theatre (see Broadway). By Larry David. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. With ensemble cast. 2hrs. One intermission.