Since Neil Simon’s retirement more than a decade ago, the boulevard comedy has been in short supply on Broadway. But Larry David aims to fill the gap with Fish in the Dark, serving up middlebrow yucks for the masses. And the masses seem to be eating it up — the star-studded show, playing through June 7 at the Cort Theatre, has already emerged as one of the season’s most lucrative hits.
In his first play, David creates a kind of extended version of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (He even manages to slip in his old catchphrase, “Pretty good. Pretty, pretty, pretty good.”) Here, his alter ego is not “Larry David” but another curmudgeonly L.A. resident named Norman Drexel, a urinal salesman with a father (Jerry Adler) who issues a deathbed wish that his wife (Jayne Houdyshell) go to live with one of his sons. But did he mean Norman or his wealthier, divorcé younger brother, Arthur (Adam Shenkman)? It’s the first in a series of ambiguities, misunderstandings, and conflicting social cues that David exploits for laughs.
If Norman is an update of Curb‘s “Larry David,” then the rest of the players seem more at home in the broader, sitcom world of Seinfeld (which David also co-created), including the petty, avaricious aunts and uncles who could be updated versions of George Costanza’s parents. “The only time I feel truly alive is at funerals,” says Uncle Stewie (Lewis J. Stadlen), an overbearing loudmouth.
Given that the show boasts a cast of 18, it’s not surprising that the Drexels and their hangers-on emerge less as flesh-and-blood characters than as types defined mostly by their tics. Norman’s twentysomething daughter (Molly Ranson) speaks in a British accent to get into character for a production of My Fair Lady that she’s doing at a “work space above a Hooters” — though this does help distinguish her from Norman’s 14-year-old niece (Rachel Resheff), whose heartfelt eulogy for her grandfather upstages Norman’s own (in Davidian fashion, he confronts her with his suspicions that her dad ghostwrote it for her). As in the work of Neil Simon, the women often emerge as the least sympathetic: Houdyshell’s mother is a sharp-tongued harpy, his family’s long-time maid (Rosie Perez) is a source of Spanish-English misunderstanding (an Anglo lawyer mistakes her offer of cuchifritos as an introduction of her name), and his wife (Rita Wilson) is defined by her antipathy for her mother-in-law and a Marilu Henner-like memory for past dates that fails to yield a big comedic payoff. Then again, Cheryl Hines had eight seasons to deepen her comparably thankless portrayal of David’s long-suffering wife on Curb.
Despite its structural flaws — many scenes seem to peter out rather than ending on a solid punchline — Fish in the Dark still packs in as many jokes as a platters on a post-funeral buffet table. Many lean on David’s familiar observational humor (he wonders aloud if you can knock of the faux wood in a hospital waiting room and still get luck), while tend toward Borscht Belt shtick (“I don’t want to die alone,” one character remarks, “I want to live alone; I just don’t want to die alone”). Credit goes to director Anna D. Shapiro for keeping the scenes — and the many scene changes — moving with well-paced alacrity.
In his stage debut, David proves to be a remarkably confident performer, with a nimble gift for physical comedy. The real standout, however, is another actor making his Broadway debut: Jake Cannavale, the 19-year-old son of Bobby, who plays the son of Perez’s maid and the chief catalyst of the second-act shenanigans. To say much more would spoil the fun. And the funny. There’s plenty of both in Fish in the Dark. Grade: B+