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The first act of Larry David’s Broadway debut as writer and actor is pret-ty, pret-ty good; unfortunately, the second act is pret-ty, pret-ty not. David is well known and celebrated — or hated, by some — for his television work: He was the cocreator of Seinfeld (the character of George Costanza, played by Jason Alexander, is inspired by him) and the comic genius behind HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which he stars as a self-obsessed version of himself, getting into uncomfortable, cringe-worthy situations that are as funny as they are annoying. He has arrived on Broadway with quite a bang; Fish in the Dark virtually sold out its eighteen-week run at the Cort Theater before it even officially opened and the reviews started coming in. (Only premium seating, ranging from $185 to $499, is now available.) Fish in the Dark is, in effect, an extended episode of Curb, but whereas the cable show lasts a mere half hour, Fish goes on, and on, and on, clocking in at approximately two hours (with intermission). And it feels even longer. Playing what appears to be yet another version of himself — David looks and acts like he’s on the set of Curb, his only nods to being live onstage his exaggerated gestures when he’s talking, as opposed to standing around doing nothing when he’s not — David is Norman Drexel, a urinal salesman whose father, Sidney (Jerry Adler), is in the hospital, on his last legs. Right before Sidney dies, he makes his sons, Norman and Arthur (Ben Shenkman), promise to take care of their mother, Gloria (Jayne Houdyshell), and swear never to let her live alone. Thus begins a fight about which son is supposed to take the widow into their home. Arthur is a well-off divorced single father and successful lawyer, while Norman has much less money and a wife, Brenda (Rita Wilson), who threatens to leave him if he takes in his mother. It’s classic David shtick that gets even more complicated when longtime family housekeeper Fabiana (Rosie Perez) reveals to Norman a very expensive secret. Doing what David does best, he has taken a somewhat familiar, clichéd situation and turns it inside out, getting caught up in trivialities that are lifted to absurdist levels. But it all falls apart in a second act that devolves into repetition, silly slapstick, and dreadful, minor-league-sitcom plot twists.
Fish in the Dark, which boasts a talented cast of eighteen, also includes battles over a Rolex, eulogies, boob gropes, tipping doctors, reincarnation, and end-of-life care, all given equal weight in typical David fashion. Set changes are made behind a giant screen that is a blown-up State of California death certificate on which information is added or deleted over the course of the show, but it grows tiresome and confusing very quickly. Director Anna D. Shapiro (This Is Our Youth, Of Mice and Men) has done significantly better work; much of Fish in the Dark is too stagnant, with the audience (and the cast) waiting on the next telegraphed punch line. Meanwhile, some of the actors have trouble projecting, while others nearly shake the roof with their line readings. One of the many things that made Curb Your Enthusiasm so effective was that it was not overly scripted, instead providing plenty of room for the actors to improvise, providing a freshness to each exchange, something that is missing from Fish. (Critics were not permitted to see copies of the script, so I can’t verify what’s in it and what’s not, or how it might have changed since the play began previews.) In the fall of 2011, a trio of one-act comedies, Relatively Speaking, by Woody Allen, Elaine May, and Ethan Coen, ran at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. The first act of Fish in the Dark would have felt right at home on that shared bill, since you’ll end up curbing your enthusiasm during the second act. Maybe it’s best to leave at intermission, feeling like you’ve seen a live taping of a decent lost episode of Curb.