Theater Review: Fish in the Dark Is a New Domain for Larry David

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In the first episode of season five of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the character of Larry David, played by Larry David, is reduced to the cosmic indignity of buying tickets for High Holiday services from a scalper. I mention this not only because you’ll probably have to do the same if you want to see Fish in the Dark, David’s all-but-sold-out Broadway comedy, but also because it encapsulates some of what you’ll find if you succeed. In it, Larry David plays another Larry David–like character, this one named Norman Drexel, an irascible weasel forced by absurd situations into ethically questionable behavior involving a lot of Jews. It’s well built, occasionally thoughtful, and consistently very funny if not transcendently so. In short: You’ll laugh, you’ll cry — well, you’ll cry when the Visa bill comes.

Final payments are in fact the theme. As the story (after an ill-advised voice-over prologue) begins, Drexel’s father lies dying in a Los Angeles hospital, the family gathering in the waiting room to say good-bye, but mostly to complain and argue. At issue is the disposition of two bulky appurtenances: a gold Rolex and the spectacularly difficult widow-to-be. Neither Norman, who’s in urinals, nor his brother Arthur, a successful Hollywood macher, wants their mother, Gloria, winding up in his house. In fact, Norman’s wife, Brenda, threatens to move out if Gloria moves in. (The two women have disliked each other at least since the title incident, involving bony seafood served in a dimly lit dining room.) The rest of the slight story spins out from this conflict, involving along the way a series of gambits that would not have been out of place on a Milton Berle special: a spectacularly bosomed shiksa notary, a faked visit from the afterlife, a possibly plagiarized eulogy.

It’s something of a surprise to find David so vigorously working such an old-fashioned comic vein. Unlike the endlessly meta self-commentary of his television shows (both Curb Your Enthusiasm and, of course, Seinfeld), Fish in the Dark has nothing formally ironic about it. It’s no four-person, politically correct, plotless amusement, like so many comedies today, but a large ensemble piece with 18 speaking roles, a perfect second-act twist, and a solid last-minute kicker. You can understand why the director, Anna D. Shapiro, who staged last season’s terrific revivals of This Is Our Youth and Of Mice and Men, elected to highlight the play’s ’60s vibe. Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design, as lit by Brian MacDevitt, has the bright comedy flatness of a sitcom; Ann Roth’s costumes are just a shade or two realer than real. The scenes are furthermore framed by fun-annoying Pink Panther–like animations on a drop curtain and dooby-doo music by David Yazbek. You keep expecting Harvey Korman and Tim Conway to show up.

But highlighting the play’s most traditional formal qualities inevitably has the result of highlighting its least appealing ones, too. I will not be the fuddy-duddy who quibbles over the seemingly unconscious border-crossings into the territory of casual sexism (that bosomy notary, for one) and racism. (The Drexels’ stage-Hispanic housekeeper, Fabiana, has for decades mispronounced their name as Dreskel.) We are meant to accept this because the flat-chested and non-Hispanic characters are treated at least as roughly; David is famously an equal opportunity offender. When Gloria falls into a coma, he tries to awaken her by shouting, “Ma, Matlock’s on!” and when that fails, “Meet my new girlfriend, Habiba!”

But even if we accept that Norman, like his TV forebears, isn’t deliberately hateful, that he’s instead a kind of high-functioning autistic savant of discontent, it takes a lot of acting finesse to keep him from falling off the comedy tightrope. I guess the camera (and, especially, the editors) served as spotters for David’s gymnastics on Curb Your Enthusiasm, saving him from falls, because onstage he simply does not have the craft or delicacy ideally required. At a recent preview his voice was already shot, and he looked like a “before” ad for chiropractic intervention. You could tell that Shapiro had worked assiduously with him, but he still cheated to the audience way too much, stepped on cues, waved his huge hands like a Seabee doing semaphore, and basically stood ten degrees past erect, as if terrified of the heat of the audience crashing toward him: a perma-tan swayback Gumby.

To be fair, it wasn’t just David. Much of the cast, including Rita Wilson as Brenda and Rosie Perez as Fabiana, was either too stiff or too loose. As a result, the pacing, though often quick and clippy, sometimes fell into weird longueurs, as if this were live TV. This will surely improve with time. For now, only the marvelous Jayne Houdyshell, as that barracuda of a mother, really has the requisite combination of broadness and stage confidence to make you feel rooted in the tricky material.

Not that rootedness is the point, I suppose. David’s humor (we have often been told) is observational, questioning meaning and motives in the abstract; plot is an excuse, and character is a side effect. When Norman exasperatedly asks, “Who brings a date to the hospital?” he is not so much criticizing his brother (who has just done so) as investigating a primate custom in the voice of a shtetl-bred Dian Fossey. This is part of what produces the slight feeling of mismatch between the play’s Simon-esque form and its Seinfeld-esque content. We might, optimistically, imagine that David is actually growing toward something. Certainly Fish in the Dark takes a risk in undermining his famous diktat “No hugging, no learning.” At the start, Norman is so emotion-averse he hondles with his father’s doctor over who should initiate the Do Not Resuscitate discussion. (Norman refuses.) But later, when his wife has walked out, he admits, in a laugh line that is also a heartbreaker, that singlehood may not ultimately be satisfying: “I want to live alone, I just don’t want to die alone.” By the curtain, all of the survivors are huddled around another relative’s hospital bed in a scene that gets uncomfortably close to an endorsement of family togetherness.

Luckily, David pulls the plug on that and sends us home with a big people-are-awful smile. Not to say that’s a simple trick; for a playwriting debut, if not a Broadway acting debut, Fish in the Dark is amazingly confident and delivers what it promises. But it’s got neither the cerebral gloss of Clybourne Park and Stage Kiss (to name two recent laugh riots) nor the solid emotional underpinnings of much older comedies like The Odd Couple, which is, after all, about men’s loneliness. It’s going for something else, and almost gets there. Which is a complement, truly. We criticize because we care.

Fish in the Dark is at the Cort through June 7.