You can tell you’re at the Larry David play just by listening to the audience. Someone complains that it’s too cold. Another is outraged to hear that, should she have to get up to go to the bathroom, she won’t be readmitted until after the act break. Phones are not turned off, and five minutes rarely go by without a voice—which no one could describe as a whisper—asking, “What did he say?” During intermission, the woman in front of me shrugs, “Eh. It’s funny.”
Which is a fairly accurate mirror of what is happening onstage. When Norman Drexel (Mr. David) receives a phone call in the middle of the night and is informed that his father, Sidney (Jerry Adler), has been hospitalized and likely has very little time to live, he decides to wait until the next day to go and see him, but still can’t help grumbling that he won’t be able to fall back asleep. After Sidney dies, there is not so much mourning as an onslaught of accusation: did he really promise his Rolex to Uncle Harry (Kenneth Tigar)? Did the fourteen-year-old Jessica (Rachel Resheff) really compose that eulogy, or did her father ghostwrite it in order to brag about his daughter after the funeral? And, most importantly, when Sidney asked his sons to take in their mother (Jane Houdyshell), was he really looking at Norman, or was his deathbed wish directed at Norman’s brother, Arthur (Ben Shenkman)?
Fish in the Dark, written by and starring Mr. David, is absolutely hysterical, but that should come as no surprise. It should also be no surprise that the play is a veritable laundry list of concerns that have plagued him since Seinfeld: there are debates about tipping, there are not-so-subtle challenges to the honesty of others, but above all, there are those slight inquiries into the obvious but unexplained phenomena of daily life that have become Mr. David’s specialty. Indeed, I was oddly comforted by the uniform concern Norman brings to questions both banal (can one say “talk the walk”?) and profound (is a fifty-fifty chance of survival good?). Death is really not so scary when every other minor inconvenience is treated with the same significance.
This may be Broadway’s WASPiest season in years: in addition to a Robin Hood musical and another dealing with the intersection of the Anglo and the Thai, I count at least two new plays about British royalty. So it’s nice to see Mr. David crude the place up with a demeanor and social presence that couldn’t be further from Elizabeth II’s poise and equanimity, but that still retains its own modest ethical core. Sometimes frustration, anger, and shouting can have a calming effect, and I was pleased to leave Fish in the Dark with a somewhat diminished sense of the suffocating, unrelenting terror of the universe.
Fish in the Dark runs through August 1st at the Cort Theatre. 138 W. 48th Street New York, NY. 2 hours. One intermission.