Relatively Speaking, Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York

A better title for this evening of one-act plays by Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen would be: From Deep in the Drawer. How else to view an assemblage in which some of the jokes have more rings than a Yosemite redwood? Almost the only pleasure one can take is the knowledge that a lot of fine actors – 16 of them, a feast for a non-musical on Broadway – are currently employed.

The production begins promisingly, with Coen’s Talking Cure. A doctor in a psychiatric hospital attempts to elicit responses from a recalcitrant patient, given vibrancy by Danny Hoch. Hoch appears partially to be channelling John Turturro, who directed Relatively Speaking, in one of his urban-frustration roles.

Hoch’s character is a postal worker, whose mother wished for him to be an artist, “like Heifetz”. She tells us this in the second scene, when years earlier she is pregnant with her son. The setting evokes the 1950s: an odd chronology, as Hoch’s character in the opening moments is around 40 and seems to live in the present day.

That anachronism, like many of the cultural references in this production, seems calculated to amuse the parents or grandparents of a present-day audience. It is as if Allen and May have transmitted a retro-virus to Coen, whose ethos as a filmmaker has mostly been gloriously free from Hitler jokes.

I revere Elaine May. That said, her contribution is called George Is Dead, and, as it is rude to speak ill of the deceased, whether plays or persons, I will say no more about it.

Allen’s Honeymoon Motel is the longest of the one-acts, and the most professionally constructed. Its set-up – a middle-aged writer absconds from a wedding ceremony to a motel with his stepson’s bride – is classic farce.

The audience tittered along with all the sex and food and rabbi jokes. Typical quip: “I admit Freud was a genius. Who else could make an hour into 50 minutes?”

Freud, at least, was able to collapse time; Relatively Speaking exists mostly to prolong it.

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