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April 3, 2015

If You Insist on Hearing My Opinion …

At first it was only a few, but then more and more of you wrote in.

“Aren’t you going to say anything about FISH IN THE DARK?”

I answered “Well, you know what they say. If you haven’t anything good to say about someone …”

Of course many then responded with the famous Alice Roosevelt Longworth quotation: “Then come sit next to me.”

Still, I remained silent. But recently I ran into an old pal who works at Telecharge. “How’s it going?” I asked.

He exuded a heavy, heavy breath. “The only show people call up for is FISH IN THE DARK,” he moaned. “You tell them nothing’s available and they say ‘Nothing?!?!” like if they ask again you’ll say ‘Well, I do have a few …’ But we have NOTHING.”

Even then, I thought, well, why bother writing about it, given that it’s completely sold out. But now that the show isn’t closing on June 7 and will forge ahead with Jason Alexander, I guess there may be some benefit in letting those who have asked what I have to say.

So here’s the review I WOULD have written after the opening night curtain came down:

The charge often leveled against Jerry, Elaine, George and, uh, Cosmo was that they were terribly self-absorbed. But SEINFELD co-creator Larry David now makes those four look like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, St. Francis and Martin Luther King, Jr.

As a result, I had no problem curbing my enthusiasm for David’s FISH IN THE DARK.

Sidney Drexel is dying, so his sons Norman (Larry David stars, too) and Arthur (Ben Shenkman) gather in the hospital waiting room. Soon they’re discussing such issues as the quality of the plywood on the walls.

This is not because they so love their father that they’re in denial and can’t face the truth. No, they just don’t seem to care if the man lives or dies. Aside from Sidney’s wife Gloria (Jane Houdyshell), all of the other assembled relatives who file in have the same cavalier attitude while a (supposed) loved one is about to leave the world.

The small talk in this scene goes on for many minutes, and the more time that passes, the more we feel for the dying man. That’s more than we can say for the family. Even when the most serious decision must be faced – should we keep Sidney alive on a ventilator? – family members discuss it with the same urgency they’d have when deciding whether to have their coffee black or with milk and sugar.

And what if the worst case scenario occurs? “I’m not spending more than $500 on a casket,” snarls Arthur. “You don’t spend money on the dead.”

That the performers deliver these lines in matter-of-fact fashion won’t be funny to those who have lost a genuinely loved one, be it recently or long ago.

To make matters worse, the next scene actually brings us into the hospital room where we’ll watch Sidney die, right down to seeing the flatline on the monitor. Before he does, however, he makes his final wish: that his wife be taken care of by his son. Because he doesn’t specify which son, Norman and Arthur claim Dad must have meant the other one.

So the crux of the play is that a grown son doesn’t want to take in his aging and feeble widowed mother. Granted, many children don’t own up to such a responsibility, but the offhand attitude that each son takes makes FISH IN THE DARK increasingly repellent – even before the playwright delivers some jokes that mock seniors having sex.

Norman does take in Gloria, but only three minutes pass before he’s telling her “Shut the hell up!” His wife Brenda (Rita Wilson) looks directly at her mother-in-law and, wishing her dead, says in an ominous voice “One down and one to go.” How can we care about these people?

And just in case we forget that Dad has died, a scrim comes down after each scene – one made to look like a death certificate and filled in with all the doleful statistics. While the set is being changed behind it, perky music, a la the Swingle Singers of yore, is played to further underline that, in Larry David’s mind, nothing that serious is happening.

The audience expected to get its money’s worth in laughter. Frankly, that wouldn’t be easy for David to achieve, for legitimate ticket brokers have been getting $300 or so per ticket. Illegal ones are said to be extorting four times that.

And while the theatergoers did laugh for the first few minutes, little by little, their enthusiasm ebbed away and eventually stopped when they fully gleaned what was on Larry David’s mind. By the second act, l-o-n-g stretches came and went without any sound of laughter. The audience was genuinely turning against the play.

Then, out of this arid desert came a gusher of a laugh, after David responded to a statement with “Pret-ty, pret-ty good” – his catchphrase from his HBO hit. Still, how sad that the biggest laugh of the night was a re-run that was grandfather-claused.

At least it did bring a bit of pleasure to the guffaw-parched playgoers. Some could even rationalize that the hefty ticket price was worth it to be in the same room (albeit a large one) with Larry David.

As an actor, David is not up to the needs of the stage. Compared to the rest of the easy-to-hear cast, he has a weak stage voice. When he speaks, it seems that someone has suddenly turned down the volume. He does have a hands-in-pocket ease and an amusing posture; he constantly bends his belly forward. Think of the first of two parentheses – the open one -- and you’ll get the picture.

But in an era when virtually every performance of a Broadway show gets a quick standing ovation, not one audience member at FISH IN THE DARK stood at the first curtain call. At the second, only a few lone individuals s-l-o-w-l-y left their seats to stand – possibly out of mercy, lest David feel bad.

Oh, and the title? It refers to a dimly lit meal that one relative served to his family. “It’s hard to eat fish in the dark,” Norman grouses. Add another item to Larry David’s astonishingly long complaint list.

FISH IN THE DARK has been this Broadway season’s unquestioned box-office champion. It’s also a champ in another way: its mean-spiritedness knocks out its audience.

         — Peter Filichia



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