Monday, March 9, 2015

Fish in the Dark (Cort Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Fans of Larry David and his late, lamented HBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” will relish this opportunity to see him live, playing a character not unlike – in fact, almost totally like -- his lovably abrasive small screen persona.

And, indeed, he has assembled a top level cast and production team for this, his Broadway playwriting debut. “Fish in the Dark” is never less than amusing, but I’m disappointed to report that it didn’t tickle my funny bone as much as I anticipated. I’d rate it several notches below “It’s Only a Play” or “You Can’t Take It With You” on the laugh meter. Still, the audience at my performance had a grand time throughout. And I sat through the two hours with a smile on my face, though rarely feeling the urge to laugh out loud.

The premise is promising enough. David’s character, Norman Drexl, a Los Angeles urinal salesman, must take in his grumpy battleax of a mother Gloria (Jayne Houdyshell) after his father Sidney (Jerry Adler) extracts a death bed promise that she’ll be taken care of.

It’s not clear to which son he was speaking, and self-centered brother Arthur (Ben Shenkman) – who’s had the questionable taste to bring a date (the buxom Jenn Lyon) to his dad’s deathbed - abjures that responsibility. Norman’s housekeeper Fabiana (Rosie Perez in nicely subdued form) as Norman’s housekeeper reveals a bombshell secret that drives the rest of the farcical plot.

These central characters are surrounded by a numerous other dysfunctional family members (and this is an unusually large cast in this day and age), each with their own traits and eccentricities, but all strictly of the stock variety: the late Sidney’s sister (Marylouise Burke) and brother-in-law (Kenneth Tiger) who covets the departed’s Rolex, hot-head brother (Lewis J. Stadlin), Norm’s eccentric daughter (Molly Ranson) and overly tactile boyfriend (Jonny Orsini), and Fabiana’s studly son (Jake Cannavale). The Broadway veterans do their reliable thing, and David fits in well enough, though I felt at times he could have improved his vocal projection. At one point, he utters his “Curb” character’s trademark “pretty, pret-ty good,” to the crowd’s immense delight.

Perhaps it’s the presence of Adler, once the stage manager for “My Fair Lady” that occasions references to that classic musical popping up throughout. Natalie, for one thing, is appearing in a local production of the show, and can’t shake the Eliza Doolittle accent, and later two songs from the score are quoted.

The right ingredients are at hand for laughs, but the play isn’t really constructed with the skill of the slick 1960s comedies it seeks to emulate. It even lacks the surefire polish of a Ray Cooney sex farce, not to mention Neil Simon at his peak. There are some amusing running gags, like one about the propriety of tipping a doctor, but others fall a bit flat. Brenda has total recall of every day of her life, but there’s little genuine payoff to her having that talent.

The production elements represent top-of-the-line Broadway. Todd Rosenthal has designed some slickly attractive sets, including the hospital waiting room, and various apartment settings, and these are well lit by Brian MacDevitt, with everyone appropriately outfitted by Ann Roth. David Yazbek has composed a perky score befitting the lighthearted mood. There’s an especially witty touch of both blinking fish and animated death certificate drop curtains.

The talented Anna D. Shapiro directs the extremely lightweight proceedings here with the same professional polish she brings to her more characteristically intense material.

In the end, for all its flaws, I’d say “Fish in the Dark” is pretty – stopping short of pretty, pret-ty – funny.

(Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th St.; or 212-239-6200; through June 7)
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