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A CurtainUp Review
Fish in the Dark
By Elyse Sommer
His first play, actually a direct descendant of his popular HBO sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, attracted twenty-two producers willing to mount it with a cast of eighteen at a time when even seasoned playwrights are asked to write for small casts. They also reached deep enough into their pockets to pay for three set changes, with one that even includes an elevator.
And right those producers were. Fish in the Dark reeled in more than $14m in advance ticket sales. And the less than ecstatic initial reviews don't seem to have affected the demand for tickets.
No matter that David has chosen to tie his stage debut to the retro sixties at a time when even Neil Simon's once all over Broadway comedies have lost their laugh-a-minute, ticket selling pull. Unlike the disastrous 2009 paired revival of two Simon hits (Brighton Beach Memoirs, closed after just one week, and Broadway Bound was cancelled), David's less original and nuanced play will keep the cash registers ringing as long as he's on stage to dish up the gags.
The fact that this tall, skinny bald guy is hardly matinee idol handsome and has zero experience as a stage actor means nothing his devoted fans. What they're fishing for is a chance to see and hear him do his David shtik live; to be specific, lots of politically incorrect if it's on your lung, it's on your tongue zingers delivered with raised eyebrows and arms swept wide open.
Fish in the Dark does come with enough theatrical credentials for more discriminating theater audiences to fill any seats not taken by the ardent David-ites. For starters, Anna Shapiro, a class A director who usually helms more serious theatrical fare like the Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County and the revival of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Shapiro has assembled a bunch of seasoned stage pros and an equally stage savvy design team.
To their credit, the generously sized ensemble has zestfully jumped into the sitcomish death in the family set-up. They seem to enjoy orbiting the show's star who's here posing as a fictional character named Norman Drexel. Norman's career as a urinal dealer opens the door to a fair share of toilet jokes. Norman is, of course, as inseparable from the real Larry David as Daisy Hilton was from her twin sister Violet.
Most prominent cast members are brother Ben Shenkman who brings Jenn Lyon, a bosomy blonde date, to the hospital where their father lays dying. . . Rita Wilson as the wife who threatens to leave if mother-in-law Jane Houdyshell moves in with them . . . Rosie Perez the Hispanic Drexel domestic with her own secret claim on the family estate. . . Lewis J. Stadlen, MaryLouise Burke and Kenneth Tigar bring their own nutty agendas.
All these people stumble, kvetch and quarrel their way through two acts of gag filled scenes, each of which ends like a rerun of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. Incidents within several scenes — like a bit of business about tipping a doctor —, play like episodes within episodes. In fact, the standout actors like Jane Houdyshell and Ben Shenkman showcase David's knack for casual, non-actorly TV performance style. In short, his lack of acting nuance and powerful vocals are almost more asset than deficit.
Houdyshell comes closest to at least occasionally stealing the show. She manages to be convincing as Norman's mother despite actually being quite a bit younger than him. Her character even gets to expand on a question that seems to bother Curb's Larry in one episode. That's when a friend from a large Irish family responds with a "No to Larry's "You ever catch your parents having sex?" and Larry happily addsa "Me heither." Not so here, however. This is after all a comedy relying on farcical sex jokes for some of its biggest laughs. The title too is a Curb-ish joke, involving a grudge harbored since a fish dinner served in a poorly lit dining room almost caused one of the guests to choke.
Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal has provided well furnished environments for the hospital death watch, the post funeral family gathering and Norman's nearby house. After the dead man's last wishes are farcically carried out, it's back to the hospital — with even that bit about tipping a doctor brought full circle. In addition to a curtain imprinted with what looks more like a winking peanut than a fish. For the in between scene interludes a drop down screen that's a giant replica of a death certificate updates the lives being recorded. Clever and fun, especially as accompanied by David Yazbek's 60's evoking original between scenes music.
I can't say that seeing Fish in the Dark left me with a belly ache from laughing. Nor did it make me less apt to curb my enthusiasm for Larry David's brand of misanthropic humor. Mostly it left me hoping that the producers will spend some of the money they're raking in to back some fledgling playwrights who aren't already multi-millionaires.