After the success of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, there are plenty of people who would probably pay good money to eat dinner with Larry David for the sole purpose of having him insult and nitpick their table manners (“You eat your peas with a fork?”) while arguing with the waitstaff about his dish’s preparation and the appropriate tip. During the matinee preview of his Broadway play A Fish in the Dark, that I attended, David got close to the biggest applause of the afternoon for flubbing a line and ad-libbing, “I messed that up.” Later, when he finally recited his signature line — “prettay, prettay good” — the Cort Theatre went nuts. In other words, the bar for his fans’ appreciation is prettay, prettay low.
Fortunately, the play, which opens tonight, is a worthy outlet for both their cash and their adoration, rewarding audiences with two hours that at their best combine the winning aspects of his signature sitcoms: the kinetic ensemble rhythm of Seinfeld meets the exploration of the outer reaches of social discomfort for which Curb is known — and either loved or hated.
It turns out that David’s gift for dialogue translates well to the stage. It also turns out that when the exacting, grudge-holding, and curmudgeonly qualities that David’s alter ego possess on Curb are spread around to a half-dozen characters to create an exacting, grudge-holding, and curmudgeonly clan, what looked like far-out parody on TV can almost begin to resemble genuine social realism. I must have muttered “this is too real” a dozen times while watching the play, which is something I can never imagine myself saying during a viewing of Curb.
On Curb, what starts out as a trenchant observation is quickly spun into a surreal, cringe-worthy standoff. For much of the new play’s first act, however, the cringing stays within the bounds of what we can actually imagine happening to us. And that’s because the stuff of Larry David’s imaginative palette — the foolish boundaries of social niceties, the reliability of human inconsiderateness and greed, our lethal memories for past insults — all actually comes into play during the rituals around death and dying. Funerals and hospitals, for all the genuine sadness and grief they evoke, also put us in absurd and frustrating situations that we wouldn’t notice under other circumstances.
This happy, or sad, coincidence ensures that the play’s first act, which concerns itself less with a plot arc than with observational humor, is far superior to the second, which goes back to the protagonists’ home. There it heads towards becoming a wacky farce in the vein of Moliére or a lesser sitcom episode.
David, inspired to write the play by both a friend’s father’s shiva and Nora Ephron’s success on Broadway, has written the story of the Drexels, a clan on the cusp of, and then in the throes of, bereavement. He plays Norman, the put-upon brother and son who is a milder version of the characters he is associated with, the Larry David of Curb and George Costanza. Assembled around him, flitting in and out of a hospital room are: an uncle who married into the family and wants the patriarch’s Rolex (“Thank you for promising me the Rolex!” he tells his dying brother-in-law in tones loud enough for the whole family to overhear); another uncle who has a special gift for loudness and profanity; his daughter, going method and staying “in character” as Eliza Doolittle; and her vapid boyfriend. Meanwhile, Norman’s wife Rita Wilson) and mother have been tallying up small resentments against each other over the years (“fish in the dark” refers to the time, a decade ago, when the in-laws were forced to dine on fish under dim lights because their daughter-in-law prefers her mood lighting), and he and his brother are so competitive that one competes with the other’s daughter over the honor of best eulogy. The Broadway veterans who flank David to play this family full of garrulous relatives are so perfectly cast that my partner and I both felt like our many long-gone Jewish great aunts and uncles had been reincarnated before our eyes.
A Fish in the Dark‘s scenes are demarcated by a curtain that is made to look like a certificate of death, with different names written in and erased, and that itself sets the tone. David is the pied piper who leads us into to the valley of the shadow, via all kinds of awkward locations; the hospital waiting room, the deathbed, the post-funeral shiva, where relatives in black squabble about inheritances and tributes while stuffing themselves with bagels and lox, not to mention the cuchifritos brought in by Rosie Perez, playing the housekeeper with a large, obvious, and hilarious secret connection to the dead man.
One of the larger quibbles between the characters involves the use and sophistication of the word “profound,” and I’ve been thinking about that word since I saw the play: did applying the Curb aesthetic to the topic of death render it more profound? Or did I simply enjoy a two-hour live episode of a beloved TV show? I’m not sure if the play intentionally taps in to any sort of deeper meaning, but on the other hand, what’s more universal than a family squabbling over the legacy of someone they’ve lost? Whether or not David intended it, there’s meaning enough in reliving some of the sadder, and indeed more angry, moments of all our lives through the lens of humor. Let’s hope HBO and David are smart and tape a night of the show’s limited run for a TV special so that it can be accessible beyond the Broadway ticket-buying crowd.