TWN season-opener at Bennett Hall through April 3
By Jim Sulzer
“Relatively Speaking,” Theatre Workshop of Nantucket’s “winter show” for 2016, is a sizzling comedy featuring short plays by three brilliant and stylish writers: Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen. The talented cast, described as “all-local” in the credits, does some fine ensemble work, playing off each other with verve and intelligence, and delivering laughs by the bushel.
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote,“Hell is other people,” and “Relatively Speaking” might be said to accept this definition as its starting point, but to offer a 21st century update: “other people – but especially members of your family (yourself included).” While Sartre was trolling the depths of existential angst, these three one-act plays mine the twisted caverns of family dysfunction to discover gleams of scintillating humor and sharp comic insight.
Ethan Coen, one of the two “Coen brothers” of filmmaking renown, wrote “The Talking Cure,” the first of the three plays, a short vignette about a well-meaning psychiatrist and Larry, his difficult and defiant patient. Jack Bulger and Peter Sendelbach inhabit these roles to perfection. Sendelbach convinces us of the hostility lurking beneath the surface of Larry’s verbal elusiveness and half-muted threats, and Bulger’s sensitive body language and tones of voice reveal the growing frustration of the doctor beneath his professional veneer.
The timing – so crucial to comedy – between the two of them is spot-on, and the play gathers momentum and humor as it rolls along. Christy Kickham and Marcela Jones offer a comic kicker at the end of the play, Coen’s coda on the squabbles of Larry’s parents just before his birth. This is family dysfunction at its most broadly entertaining, full of pregnant pauses and ludicrous analogies. Kudos to director Jonathan Jensen in his TWN directing debut.
The second play,“George is Dead,” by the acclaimed playwright and scriptwriter Elaine May, is the most fully developed of the three. It differs from the other two plays in that it uses comedy as a tool, a chisel for chipping away at the truth of its characters, rather than as an end in itself – but it is also very funny. Cynthia Csabay is resplendent in the lead role, commanding the stage as Doreen, an entitled rich girl who never grew up.
Having just learned of the death of her husband George in a skiing accident in Aspen, she has nowhere to go for solace but to seek out Carla, the daughter of her former nanny. Sarah Fraunfelder is totally convincing as Carla – reacting with priceless, silent outrage to Doreen’s ceaseless and pathetic demands for coddling – even as she starts to reveal her own growing despair over her troubles with her husband, played with searing anger by Scott Corry. Fraunfelder is able to create a sympathetic character who wins the audience to her side, offering a nice contrast to the selfobsessed Doreen, who cannot understand the world outside her bubble of class and privilege.
May gives some unforgettable lines to Doreen, most notably her extended metaphor (a soliloquy, really) on why she ignores other people’s stories. This play also features a coda of sorts, played nicely by Pam Murphy as the quite-a ged nanny and Adam Noonan as the funeral director. Director ! Susan Lucier deserves credit for an excellent piece of work.
The final play is a Woody Allen offering, “Honeymoon Motel.” Allen, of course, has created some iconic American masterpieces such as “Annie Hall,” and this play generates its raucous comic moments. But the writing is not Allen at his best. At times the play reads like a grab-bag of jokes, some funny, some that fall with a thud.
Fortunately, Allen is a genius of inventiveness, and he gives this entertaining cast enough material for them to have some rollicking fun. Fraunfelder creates another enjoyable character: Nina, the impetuous bride who runs off at her wedding with someone other than the groom. As the details of this misadventure sort themselves out, we meet, one by one, the other members of the wedding party, starting with Jerry, the groom’s father, played with keen pleasure by Corry. A well-meaning friend named Ed, played nicely by Kickham, is next to arrive. Jerry’s wife Judy, delivered with comic splendor by Karen Lee, adds her voice to the fray.
More comic characters crowd onto the stage in close succession, adding to the richness of the stew: Fay and Sam (Nina’s parents), played with gentle humor by Murphy and David Lazarus; a tippling rabbi, brought to life with effusive hilarity by Chuck Gifford; a psychiatrist, played cagily by Sendelbach; the jilted groom, Paul, strongly brought to life by Townsend Ambrecht; and Sal the pizza delivery boy – the deus ex machina of the piece – who is given a boy-next-door winsomeness by Adam Noonan. Justin Cerne directed “Honeymoon Motel” with comic zip.
The attractive, serviceable set is the work of Rebecca Haines, with production support from Kaitlyn Burke and Emma Gifford. This is don’tmiss theater, guaranteed to put any lin! gering winter blues in the rear view mirror.
Theatre Workshop of Nantucket’s “Relatively Speaking,” Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m., through April 3 at Bennett Hall, 62 Centre St. Tickets, $22, can be purchased by calling the box office at (508) 2284305, or by visiting www.theatreworkshop. com.