A swaggering, self-centered, utterly unsympathetic “hero.” An awkward social situation in which said character displays how greedy, grasping and manipulative he can be. A series of comic reversals in which the character receives his comeuppance and must decide whether or not to repair the relationships he has so heedlessly destroyed.
Not since the days of Molière has such a comic type been so successfully exploited — not, at least, until the advent of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in 2000; that show took the idea of the urban anti-hero beyond the anxious, self-congratulatory, New York intellectual smugness of Woody Allen, beyond the petty, vulgar, backbiting antics of the characters on David’s own “Seinfeld,” and into a hyper-assimilated, surrealistic, history-less Los Angeles milieu. There, Jewish-Christian intermarriage is the norm, Jewish ethnicity is mostly absent, and stereotypical Jewish behaviors and mannerisms have largely slipped their cultural moorings.
In David’s first Broadway play, “Fish in the Dark,” he reprises his “Curb” character and even a lot of familiar “Curb” situations, down to the last distasteful details, only to fail, through uninspired writing and a lack of compelling supporting characters, to deliver the comic goods. Ostensibly a play about two brothers dealing with the death of their father, the show ends up being mostly about Larry David trying to be as obnoxious as possible.
“Fish in the Dark,” directed by Anna D. Shapiro, starts promisingly enough, with the Larry character, here called Norman Drexel, in the dark in bed with his wife, Brenda (Rita Wilson), when the phone rings and he finds out his elderly father is in the hospital. Before long, as the clan gathers outside the hospital room, Larry (oops, Norman) gains ample opportunities to belittle the other characters. No one, starting with his younger brother, Arthur (Ben Shenkman), his mother, Gloria (the invaluable Jayne Houdyshell), his Aunt Rose (MaryLouise Burke), his Uncle Harry (Kenneth Tigar), and his father’s former maid, Fabiana (Rosie Perez), escapes his ridicule. When the father’s dying wishes about which son his widow should live with are uttered unintelligibly (a throwback to Larry’s father’s hospital bed mumblings in the “Larry David Sandwich” episode of “Curb”), Norman devises an elaborate scheme to convince his mother that she has had an encounter with her late husband’s ghost (shades of Fiddler on the Roof?) and that his father’s intentions were in line with Norman’s agenda.
While these characters are appealing, at least on the surface, none is particularly compelling, unlike so many of the recurring characters on “Curb” who seemed to have complex inner lives and whose sparring with Larry was often so psychologically fraught. Worse yet, few of the characters in “Fish” (aside from his wife, with whom he has a hilarious argument about why they so rarely have sex), are able to stand up to Norman, in the way that characters on “Curb” are licensed to do. Even Perez is forced to be meek in the face of Norman’s gratuitous insults, obsession with semantics, and clumsy attempts at constructive criticism, which are less amusing when they get little response from his victims. Perez’s character is simply made to look stupid, as when she doesn’t know what Hadassah is.
While each episode of “Curb” was developed largely through improvisation among the actors, “Fish” was written entirely by David, with little room, it appears, for the other actors’ creativity. The scenes between the two brothers (the flimsy plot centers around which brother is responsible, in the wake of their father’s death, to have the mother move in with him) seem like Norman is having an argument with himself; his brother’s lines sound too much like his own. The cast is uniformly excellent, which makes it a shame that so many of the actors, including Perez and Houdyshell, are largely wasted in underwritten parts; the father’s brother, Stewie, is played by the wonderful character actor Lewis J. Stadlen, who seems to have been imported from a Neil Simon play for his few moments of shtick.
None of this is the director’s fault. Each scene cleverly begins with a death certificate projected on the front curtain, and the audience watches as the details are filled in; the top and sides of the stage retain the design of the frame of the certificate throughout the show. (The nod to technology seems to be borrowed from “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” — or is it that the boundaries between stage and screen/video are continuing to erode?) Shapiro tries to keep things moving but, unlike similar Jewish farces that have hit Broadway in recent years, such as Woody Allen’s brilliant, one-act “Honeymoon Motel,” the play is too poorly written to sustain its overall comic momentum.
Instead, “Fish” keeps degenerating into a series of awkward skits, in which Norman, whose own morals are far from upright — he pursues his brother’s ex-girlfriend as soon as she becomes available — is repeatedly scandalized by other people’s sexual behavior. Despite his own stupendous failings, Norman stands in for the audience in taking umbrage at the other characters’ pervasive greed, stinginess and propensity to serve a grotesque amount of food; all are cringe-worthy Jewish stereotypes that are no less offensive on stage than they are on television.
There are very amusing scenes in the play, including the one when Norman’s scheme inevitably goes awry and he responds with a hilarious series of weak-kneed double takes. There are some very funny lines, such as the one when one character confesses that he doesn’t “want to die alone. I want to live alone; I just don’t want to die alone.” Or the one that is delivered by another character who describes each funeral he attends as an “elimination tournament” that makes him feel elated to “move onto the next round.”
But even, or especially, diehard fans of “Curb” will find little of what characterized the show’s best episodes — the memorable characters, the boundary-breaking (as opposed to mere vulgarity, which is mostly what we get here), the sexual humor, the various plot lines that ultimately merged in an unpredictable way, and the main character’s inability to control his own propensity for self-humiliation rather than, in the case of “Fish,” making other characters into the butts of ridicule.
“Fish in the Dark” leaves David — and the audience — sadly empty-handed.
“Fish in the Dark” runs through June 7 at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. Few tickets are available for the remainder of the run. For tickets, $49-$169, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.