Mo Schaden, Mo Freude: Larry David Does Broadway in His New Play 'Fish in the Dark'
In David's new hit play Fish in the Dark, the equation is simple: Tragedy equals comedy.
Over his seven seasons at the helm of NBC's Seinfeld and eight at HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's signature contribution to American comedy has been a form of Jewish levity that you could describe as a stark, bleak, utterly jarring attack on your comfort level. Think of George's nonplussed response to the death-by-envelope-licking of the fiancée he didn't want to marry, or Larry's screw-up writing an obituary for his wife's aunt that results in her being memorialized as a "Devoted wife and beloved cunt." With Seinfeld, Curb, and now his new hit Broadway play, Fish in the Dark, David has honed the well-worn comedy equation of tragedy plus time into an even simpler arithmetic: Tragedy equals comedy.
Fish in the Dark 's tragedy is the sudden death of the Drexel-family patriarch, Sidney (played in a mercilessly brief appearance by Jerry Adler). He is survived by his wife, Gloria (Jayne Houdyshell), and his two grown sons, Arthur (Ben Shenkman), a successful lawyer, and Norman, a failing urinal salesman, played by David. The comedy is about pretty much everything else in the lives of the Drexels, who gather in the hospital to see Sidney off, bringing with them any typically Jewish moodiness and neurosis you might expect in the infrastructure of a Larry David–created family. Before the curtain even goes up, a recording of a phone call is played in which Norman learns that his father is in the hospital; his immediate reaction is to jerk off. The play's first noteworthy conflict is over Sidney's request that one of the brothers take Gloria in after he dies. Who, specifically, he wanted to take care of his wife is unclear, and both Norman and Arthur—who agree on little save for how irritating they find their mother—are determined to prove the plea was aimed at the other.
Also in attendance for Sidney's parting are Norman's wife, Brenda (Rita Wilson), who is about as fond of Gloria as Norman or Arthur is, their self-involved actress daughter (Molly Ranson), her irritating boyfriend (Jonny Orsini), and Arthur's daughter (Rachel Resheff), Jessica. (The eulogy for Sidney delivered by Jessica later on gives David the opportunity to stage a variation on a Curb favorite, the argument with a child—Jessica's speech receives better reviews among the family than his did, but he's not convinced she wrote it herself.) The Drexel mishpocha is made complete by the trio of truculent uncle, nagging aunt, and schlemiel in-law played by Lewis Stadlen, Marylouise Burke, and Kenneth Tigar, respectively.
The family quickly drops into a pattern of bickering that you can tell gives them the comfort of an old shoe. Recent or historic, trivial or momentous, the disputes all receive the same supersaturated level of anger—who gets to visit Sidney in his room first? Who should get his Rolex? Who refused to make the lights brighter during dinner? Who may have called whom a cunt during dinner ten years ago? Among such questions are also loftier Larry David inquiries: Is it effective if the wood you knock on is faux? Are you supposed to tip your doctor? If Gandhi said you can't shake hands with a closed fist, how do you think he'd react to the fist bump?
Further complicating the family mishegas is Fabiana, the Drexel's longtime maid, played by Rosie Perez, who appears unexpectedly at the hospital to be with Sidney at his bedside. Her subsequent arrival at shiva to deliver a plate of cuchifritos and reveal to Norman that her relationship with Sidney extended beyond cleaning products into romance serves as the hinge for anything Fish in the Dark might claim resembles a plot.
The show and everyone in it is a delight—delight in Larry David terms being an oppressive mixture of contempt, obsession, and adversity, mingled with an inescapable sense of futility. And Larry David, despite claiming that he doesn't consider himself an actor , is great. Does he have the range of a Charles Durning or a Meryl Streep? Not so much. Is he the perfect Larry David? Absolutely.
And for someone who lately has been better known for outlining episode scripts and then improvising all the dialogue in them, he also writes a great joke: "I've never felt more alive than at a funeral. It's like life is an elimination tournament and I advanced to the next round." And: "I'd like to get married again: I don't want to die alone. I want to live alone—I just don't want to die alone."
Fish in the Dark also contributes further commandments to the already swollen Larry David Guide to Ethics and Morality. It's a cardinal sin to earnestly quote Gandhi while trying to reconcile estranged siblings. It is morally neutral for one of those estranged siblings to try to fuck his brother's former girlfriend despite the brother's protests. It is basically a sacrament for that former girlfriend to allow the brothers' dying father to cop two extended feels upon her breasts as he whispers off this planet.
The play's commandments make clear, as did David's alter egos of George Costanza and TV Larry before it, that Larry David has a long history of doing something that breaks Seinfeld's cardinal rule of "no learning"—teaching us a lesson. Or, more accurately, reminding us of something that has been handed down from generation to generation of kvetching Jew. And no matter how many brow-furrowed goys writing very serious novels or memoirs have tried to convince me otherwise, I am an agreement with him. All of our worst feelings—and probably life itself, for that matter—they are all tremendous jokes.
Death is also pretty funny. A few years ago my wife's maternal grandfather, Leo, a kind man who resided in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, died at the age of 89. Leo was Jewish and, like the best of today's Jews, not religious. If a nonreligious Jew dies, he or she is likely to do so without belonging to a temple. And if you want to mourn that person with a Jewish ceremony, what you get is a rent-a-rabbi to conduct it—basically the first ringer from a local synagogue who happens to be free. Like I imagine many of these rabbis to be, Leo's rental wasn't so good. Among a variety of missteps was one particular error he made during his clearly boilerplate eulogy: Somewhere between the limp praise of a long life well-lived and the tepid admiration for the man so beloved by his family, the rental got Leo's name wrong and called him Louis.
In the rental's defense, it was a little confusing, because Leo's birth name was actually Louis, and the rabbi had picked up naming information from the birth certificate rather than talking to the family. Had he talked to the family he would have learned that nobody ever called Leo Louis. And had he taken a moment to put in a personal touch to his usual script—like, say, asking beforehand, "Do I have this guy's name right?"—he wouldn't have walked away from the service having had his mistake called out from the pulpit by an angry family member during an otherwise quite touching remembrance of Leo; nor would he have had to suffer standing two feet away from that same aggrieved relation as she used the post-service moments of tearful parting to wag an angry thumb in his direction and loudly proclaim for all to hear what a "useless motherfucker" he was. Thus goes the traditionally recited Mourner's Kaddish: "Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will."
Larry David (another Sheepshead Bay boy, by the way) and Fish in the Dark seem to be of the same opinion, though neither he nor the play, and neither the rabbi nor the cursing cousin for that matter, can claim rights to the idea; it isn't novel. In that sense there's not much of anything that is really "new" about Fish in the Dark. Angry family, broken relationships, neuroticism, insecurity, silly arguments. The play is a lot like an extended, scripted episode of Curb. But I don't always turn to the comedians I love for "new." I like when they dig deeper into the nooks of some issue you thought they'd completely hollowed out only to see them discover yet one more take on the subject. I like hearing Louis CK's latest joke about how shitty and wonderful it is to be a parent, rediscovering another way Richard Pryor told me black people and white people are different, watching Tina Fey explore every which way it's hilarious to be an awkward lady, or reading Philip Roth explode once again with ecstasy and shame over his relentless sexual pathologies.
David has always appeared committed to some very pure idea of situation comedy, where the situation directly leads to the comedy. If you think of "The Contest" in Seinfeld, there's not much plot to speak of. Just a simple proposition—everyone competes to see who can go the longest without masturbating—and then the following of how it plays out, i.e., how everyone pretty much fails. Even the much-lauded trick of tying threads together between Seinfeld or Curb's A, B, and C stories is more a sophisticated and brilliant version of the callback than it is a narrative device. It's not effective because action rose and fell, climaxes rolled breathlessly into dénouements, and certainly not because the characters ever changed or grew. Maybe that's why his recent HBO movie Clear History didn't really come together. Everyone in it was funny, and the scenes were great, but the movie had too tortured a plot and too much narrative. It killed the comedy.
Which is why I loved Fish in the Dark. There is barely any narrative; there's barely any plot: the backward sibling rivalry over the father's deathbed request, a few of the lesser conflicts between other family members, and one brief separation between Norman and Brenda. The storyline with Fabiana develops into something slightly more plot-like, but mostly it's just an excuse for a few more funny situations before we all leave the theater. So what you're really left with is the one big situation—death—opening up to a handful of smaller situations, and then hilarity, bleakness, anger, yelling. The end.
One surprising delight about Fish in the Dark is how well-suited it turns out Larry David's tone and style are for the theater. As poorly as they fared in a feature-length narrative comedy, they found the right home within the confines of a light two-hour play. I guess it's not surprising. A good Larry David scene relies on all the hallmarks of stage histrionics: copious gesticulation, excessive shouting, exaggerated pacing and intonation. And, of course, all that snappy talking. The visuals of the play, particularly some of the quiet costuming touches—Uncle Stewie's Birkenstocks over socks, brother-in-law Harry's half-century-old color-blind plaid coat—resonate with some deep buried memory of family members best left forgotten. But they're incidental. If a Larry David play doesn't ultimately win the day with the memorable and absurdly hilarious dialogue that you want from a Larry David play, then a Larry David play may as well not exist. In the case of Fish in the Dark, tragedy equals victory.
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