Director Anna D. Shapiro, usually associated with heavier dramas from such authors as Kenneth Lonergan, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Tracy Letts, Bruce Norris and John Steinbeck, has surrounded David with an A-List of stage and screen stars (Jayne Houdyshell, Rita Wilson, Rosie Perez, Lewis J. Stadlen, Marylouise Burke, etc.), as well as some rising stars and performers to watch (Molly Ranson, Jonny Orsini, and Jake Cannavale). Part of her assignment is to direct the traffic of the very large cast (18 in all) of the Drexel clan on the four sets and keep out of the way of these pros doing what they do best. At this, Shapiro does a superb job.
Shapiro may have been chosen for her work on another large cast dysfunctional family play, August: Osage County. Here again the premise is also the death of a father. Nathan’s father Sidney (Jerry Adler) is dying in a hospital room with his family around him. His dying wish is for one of his sons, Nathan (David), a Los Angeles urinal executive, or his younger brother, divorced lawyer Arthur (Ben Shenkman) to take in their mother Gloria (Houdyshell). However, no one can be certain which of the two Sidney looked at, and as Gloria is famous for her biting remarks and imperious nature, neither of them wants to have her live with them. Norman ends up taking her in but at the expense of his relationship with his longsuffering wife Brenda (Wilson) and his housekeeper Fabiana (Perez) who had previously had enough of her insensitive remarks when she worked for Sidney and Gloria. And then he has to come up with some clever ideas to make things work out right. Beware of his inventions.
As David has created them, the rest of the Drexel family is almost as guilty of social faux pas as he is which is where most of the humor comes from. Fish in the Dark fits into a sub-genre of plays about families behaving badly after funerals. Although the play seems like something you have heard before, all the jokes and insults and one-liners and inappropriate behavior and ethnic humor still land, from the problems over who gets Sidney’s Rolex, to who gave the better eulogy, to Dad’s extra-curricular activities. A running gag is whether you tip a doctor which is milked for all it is worth, but in this context and with these characters it is a very funny bit.
David, dressed as you have come to expect him to on Curb Your Enthusiasm, right down to the sneakers and chinos with a blazer, uses the same physicality he demonstrated on television, from the wild hand and arm gestures to the exaggerated body poses and his patented shrug. Many of his famous expressions are right in place from “Let me ask you something” to his “pretty, pretty” routine which is certain to excite his audiences. And like his television persona, Norman’s prime quality is his character’s honesty which always comes across as inappropriate even when he has a valid point. It is just the way he phrases what other people leave unsaid. At this, David takes to the stage like the proverbial fish to the water.
The cast do not seem to be working too hard, enjoying thoroughly what comes easily to them and they seem to have been chosen for individual qualities at which they are expert. As the widow who seems oblivious that her every remark contains a sting, Houdyshell is having the time of her life. Perez plays a role she has played before as the Latina who is the unfortunate recipient of many conscious and unconscious putdowns. Rita Wilson, creating her first Broadway role, obtains much sympathy playing straight woman as Norman’s resigned and stoic wife until she can’t take it anymore.
Shenkman is fine as the exasperated brother with his own baggage. As Uncle Stewie, Stadlen who came to fame playing Groucho Marx has an undeniable way with a zinger. Marylouise Burke and Kenneth Tigar as Aunt Rose and Uncle Harry have their own hilarious routine as dyed in the wool eccentrics. Among the younger members of the family, Molly Ranson is hilarious as Norman’s actress daughter Natalie who has taken her British stage role home and is trying to live it in her daily life for practice. Jonny Orsini (The Nance) as Natalie’s boyfriend has some fun with a few wicked questions, certain to cause trouble. As Fabiana’s son, Jake Cannavale (Bobby Cannavale’s real life son), shows real potential with his quick comic timing and his movie star looks.
Todd Rosenthal’s designs for the hospital, the funeral buffet and Norman and Brenda’s house are so realistic that they could be used for film sets. A running gag between the scenes is a California Death Certificate on the front scrim which rearranged itself before our eyes in various ways. The costumes by Ann Roth are what the well-dressed Angelinos are wearing. David Yazbek is responsible for the lively original music that separates the scene changes. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting is mostly needed for bright illumination in very public places.
Television star Larry David’s Fish in the Dark is reputedly a very hot ticket due to his first appearance on Broadway. While the play is a throwback to both the old models of Broadway comedy and the new model of television sit-com, the play is an entertaining evening in the theater that leaves you with many priceless moments. If you are looking for serious theater, you will have to look elsewhere. Should you still be wondering what the title means it refers to the reason that Gloria never liked Norman’s wife. Once Brenda served dinner with atmospheric lighting so dim that Gloria felt that she couldn’t tell what she was eating. If nothing else, Fish in the Dark’s humor will trigger the proverbial shock of recognition.
Fish in the Dark (through August 1, 2015, now starring Jason Alexander)
Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or http://www.fishinthedark.com
Running time: two hours including one intermission