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Family entertainment

"Relatively Speaking" 

Family entertainment

The JCC CenterStage's new production is "Relatively Speaking," a program of one-act plays, recently presented on Broadway, by writers better known for their work in the movies: Ethan Coen, Elaine May, and Woody Allen. Does anything tie them together? Well, each of them contains a generous sprinkling of wisecracks, as you might expect. And each of them contains characters who are related to each other, and generally making life hell for each other (hence the title — they had to call it something).

"Talking Cure" was the 19th century name for psychoanalysis before there was psychoanalysis, and also the name of the first play, written by Ethan Coen of "Fargo," "No Country for Old Men," and "Inside Llewyn Davis" fame, and directed by Kerry Young. Its first few scenes present several sessions between a fatuous analyst (played by Gregory Ludek) and a quick-witted, rather scary postal worker named Larry who may actually have gone postal (Jeff Siuda, who does quick-witted and scary very well). It's a typical who's-the-crazy-one-now dialogue, given a lift by Coen's snappy, profane banter, which seems to prove that talking doesn't cure anything. The final scene is a flashback between Larry's parents (Brittany Lynn Wolff and Brian Ziemann) that makes very clear who the crazy one is and where he got it.

"George is Dead" are the first words spoken by the main character in Elaine May's play, centered around an utterly self-absorbed socialite named Doreen (Kerry Young). George has just died in Aspen, and Doreen has absolutely no idea how to handle it, so she runs to her childhood friend Carla (Allison Roberts), a long-suffering type with a record of cleaning up other people's messes. They're not relatives but might as well be: Carla's mother was Doreen's nanny and was devoted to the rich girl, at Carla's emotional expense. Carla manages to get George's body back to New York and arrange a funeral, and...well, she gets her revenge in the last line.

This is the "big" play in the triple bill, and despite its faults — it goes on a little too long, and Carla's husband (Gregory Ludek again), who leaves her in the course of the play, is more of a plot device than a character — it stuck with me. This was mainly because of the fraught relationship between Doreen and Carla, but also because May stocks their dialogue with many genuinely witty, character-driven lines. Both actresses are excellent: Kerry Young gives Doreen just enough humanity and likeability to mitigate her amazing sense of entitlement, and Allison Roberts does the slow burn very effectively.

If Woody Allen weren't so facile a writer, I'd swear that he wrote "Honeymoon Motel" in 1965, kept it in a drawer, and dusted it off 45 years later for "Relatively Speaking." There was a time when you could find three or four examples of this kind of lighthearted audience-pleaser (not always by Neil Simon) running on Broadway in any season; nowadays it's all on TV and wrapped up in 21 minutes with commercials. Being rather old-school, I like seeing this kind of play on stage again, though I imagine if Woody Allen's name weren't on, there wouldn't be much interest.

The jokes are the usual Allen staples about sex, death, the Torah, psychoanalysis, and Chinese food. The plot they decorate is risqué but predictable: it's the one about the older man (Tim McCormack) stealing a much younger woman (Brittany Lynn Wolff) from the wedding — and from his stepson (Brian Ziemann). The illicit couple is soon tracked down at their tacky motel room by his vengeful wife (Vicki Casarett), the would-be bride's parents (Ludek and Connie Neer), the rabbi (Don Bartalo), and the analyst (Jeff Siuda), and then the fighting and the zingers begin. Peace is restored with the arrival of a philosophical pizza delivery man (Danny Kincaid Kunz).

It's good thing a lot of Allen's jokes land, because "Honeymoon Motel" is hardly a masterpiece of construction. One character (a guy named Eddie played by Morey Fazzi) seems to have no particular reason for being there, and there are a couple of odd, dull patches. But when it's funny, it's very funny, and it is entertainingly performed. This play has more physical comedy than the other two, and the cast (especially McCormack) handles it skilfully, under the direction of David Munnell (he also directed "George is Dead"). I don't know if it was intentional, but it's amusing to have Siuda play the crazy guy in "The Talking Cure" and the analyst in "Honeymoon Motel" — and to have Ziemann and Wolff, the crazed parents in the Coen play, return as the young couple in Allen's.

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