Although he is by all appearances a man who does what he wants when he wants, Larry David is nevertheless obsessed by etiquette. It is a recurring motif throughout his two landmark television series, “Seinfeld,” which he co-created, and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which he created and in which he stars. There are debates about tipping, most frequently; about public pay phone use; about returning bad fruit or disliked sports coats; about timing of wedding gifts; about the carpool lane; about nearly everything. Etiquette debates are his Eskimo word for snow, his hidden Nina.
In “Fish in the Dark,” the Broadway comedy by David that opened last night at the Cort Theatre, we are asked to consider the etiquette of waking people up with bad news when there’s nothing they can do, bringing a date to a hospital, loading dishwashers, corpse removal, honesty after death, tipping doctors, and — yep — serving seafood in dim lighting. What is not confronted, however, or at least not confronted on the performers’ side of the footlights, is the etiquette of applauding in a theater, especially vis-à-vis a hugely hyped, aggressively mediocre Broadway comedy. And so as the curtain came down on the rather long, rather unfunny opening scene of “Fish,” one was left searching, without any guidance, for an adjective. Was the applause tepid? Reluctant? Polite? Dutiful?
“Fish in the Dark” is David’s debut as both a playwright and a stage actor. He plays Norman Drexel, a Los Angeles urinal salesman, and as the play begins Norman’s elderly father is rushed to the hospital. Soon enough, dad is dead; there’s a shiva and there’s arguing, about money and mom and the housekeeper, who harbors a family secret, and by the end mom is in the hospital, too. The play is, to put it charitably, about family dynamics, about learning to get along. More honestly, it is a play about nothing, and not in the good way.
David’s celebrity has elicited flood-the-zone coverage in the entertainment press and advance sales reported at more than $13 million. He also enlisted a top-notch director, Anna D. Shapiro, who has Tony Awards for directing “August: Osage County” and “The Motherf–ker with the Hat.” David the actor is a game and enthusiastic if not particularly well-trained star — his body leans back oddly, and he has little more technique than waving his hands. And he has an excellent immediate supporting cast, including Rita Wilson as Norman’s long-suffering wife, Brenda; the ever-delightful Jayne Houdyshell as his gorgon of a mother, Gloria; Rosie Perez as the cleaning lady with a secret, Fabiana; and Ben Shenkman — who looks remarkably like a younger David, lean and lanky and beschnozzed, but with hair — as Norman’s younger, wealthier brother, Arthur.
Unfortunately, David the playwright doesn’t give these performers, or this director, much to work with. “Fish in the Dark” is both overstuffed — there are 18 speaking roles — and underbaked, a silly and sometimes awkward story with little originality in its humor. There are bits recognizable from “Seinfeld,” from the question of whether body odor can smell so bad as to be deadly (see: “The Smelly Car,” season 4) to a doctor’s final-reel suggestion that an unexpected medical event was caused by a character’s preceding comic behavior (see: “The Summer of George,” season 8). Indeed, the Greek chorus of ancillary relatives, all in retiree garb as loud as their kvetchy arguments, is entirely reminiscent of Uncle Leo and Co. (See: “The Doodle,” season 6.) Houdyshell’s Gloria is essentially Estelle Costanza. Shapiro, to her credit, keeps things moving, yes, but only inasmuch as there are things to move.
Back when the Zagat Survey was a juggernaut, professional restaurant critics complained of a “Zagat effect” — if you, a civilian, booked a table at a 29-26-28 restaurant, you’d walk in expecting 29-level food, decide you’d experienced it, and accordingly, and without the professionals’ impartial discernment, report back on the survey that you’d eaten a near-30 meal. This play may be mediocre — a “Curb” episode extended to two hours, and even at 30 minutes not one of the best — but it’s also playing to an enormous advance sale of devoted Larry David fans. (Sen. Chuck Schumer, two rows in front of me, spent intermission raving to his constituents.) Especially in the more original and absurd second act, the scene-break applause started rising from obligatory to appreciative and, near the end, almost even amused. People laughed, a lot. Late in the second act, there is one fresh, original joke — alas perhaps the only one — about why Norman and Brenda had stopped having sex. (I won’t spoil the punchline.)
But the show’s biggest laugh comes in its final scene. There’s been a recurring bit about Norman’s lawyer’s voluptuous notary (Jenn Lyon), who Arthur was dating in the first scene, who their father (Jerry Adler, dutiful in a thankless role) groped from his hospital deathbed, with her acquiescence, and with whom Norman subsequently went on one date, which ended when he, too, grabbed her breast. He is asked: So, how was it? “Pretty good,” he says. “Pretty, pretty, pretty good.”
It gets the biggest laugh of the night. It’s also cheap and hacky, making an audience salivate by ringing a bell, not because they’re hungry. A young Larry David notoriously stepped onstage at a nightclub, gave the crowed a once-over, and left without telling a joke, because he could see the audience wasn’t going to take him seriously. That Larry David — not the rich, successful one playing Norman Drexel — would walk out of the Cort.
Jesse Oxfeld has written about theater for the New York Observer and New York Magazine.