First Nighter: Woody Allen Sparks <i>Relatively Speaking</i>, While Elaine May, Ethan Coen Lack Luster

Woody Allen'sisn't one of his top-drawer laffers and certainly comes nowhere near matching the genuine comic grandeur of.
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First the better, if not entirely scintillating, news: Woody Allen's Honeymoon Motel isn't one of his top-drawer laffers and certainly comes nowhere near matching the genuine comic grandeur of Midnight in Paris, his most recent and highest grossing movie to date. Nevertheless, it contains plenty of burlesque-influenced jokes guaranteed to amuse audiences heading into the Brooks Atkinson for the three-headed Relatively Speaking -- the other two one one-acts supplied by Elaine May and Ethan Coen.

Careering into the nicely tacky honeymoon suite that Allen's fave designer Santo Loquasto outfits with a Jacuzzi no one ever uses come the giddy-as-geese Nina Roth (Ari Graynor) in a spectacular bridal gown (Donna Zakowska, the costumer) and black-tied Jerry Spector (Steve Guttenberg) -- the pair of them hot to shuck their finery and put the prominent round bed to use.

Because Allen quickly lobs in a plot twist that gets extremely appreciative response from the auditorium -- and, for that reason, won't be given away gratis here -- the couple's planned roll on the silk-sheeted hay is interrupted by eight interlopers, all but one of them keen on untangling the unexpected narrative knot Jerry and Nina have just tied.

Each of the impromptu visitors has something to say regarding the Jerry-Nina commitment. How they express themselves about who they are in relation to the central figures is what keeps spectators' funny bones tickled throughout the sketch about nuptial follies. For a single example, one of the gaglines with Allen's unmistakable stamp on it praises Freud as a genius because he turned an hour into 50 minutes. And that's probably one of the lesser thigh-slappers.

The jokes aren't the sole successful ingredient, either. The cast consists of one hilarious actor after another banging on the Starlite Motel room and then entering to slam the Woodster's to-die lines into the grateful audience. Among them are regular Allen interpreters like the inimitable Julie (voice of Marge Simpson) Kavner and Caroline Aaron as well as Mark Linn-Baker, Richard Libertini (as a mad rabbi), Danny Hoch (as a philosophical pizza delivery man), Grant Shaud, Jason Kravits and Bill Army (as a character who, were he described here, would reveal Allen's play-driving inspiration).

All 10 of the above-named are on stage during the final five minutes and therefore need constantly to be positioned strategically by director John Turturro, who -- despite persistent rumors that he ran into trouble -- has to be credited with the direction. That's what the program stipulates. Turturro is agile at it, shrewdly standing the players in a more or less jagged row across the set to make certain what they say lands solidly -- and it does.

Now for the much less good news: It's May's "George is Dead," which was called "Roger is Dead" in its longer version three years ago at New Brunswick's George Street Playhouse. Directed now by Turturro and then by May (the pesky rumors have it again directed by her), the play unfolds as apprehensive Carla (Lisa Emery) answers the determined knocking at her shabby apartment door and reluctantly allows entry to Doreen (Marlo Thomas in a blonde wig and unrecognizable from her earlier days).

Doreen's there because her husband has just died in Aspen and, having no friends, turns to her long-retired nanny's accommodating daughter. Carla -- still resentful that way back when her mother forsook her in favor of Doreen -- reluctantly falls into a previous pattern of catering to spoiled rich lady Doreen's demands. Carla is so spineless that when husband Michael (Shaud), with whom she'd been arguing earlier, returns, she remains so much under Doreen's thumb that the rift between the bickering couple widens irreparably.

Keep in mind it's May who's writing the dialogue. Much of it -- apparently tailored to Thomas from the work's outset -- is amusing. But this is a mixed blessing. While May incites giggles, she doesn't notice that the play she's writing is only secondarily about the obtuse Doreen. It's really a character study of Carla, a middle-aged woman whose love-deprived younger days sadly inhibit her ability to function in a marriage of adult equals.

Until May confronts the script she's written, strengthens the Carla-Michael thread and faces the fact that Doreen is a supporting figure, it doesn't matter if she calls the result "George is Dead," "Roger is Dead" or "Throgmorton is Dead." It's the piece itself that arrives more dead than alive.

Finally the grim and altogether confounding news: The curtain-raiser, Coen's "Talking Cure." It's no problem saying what goes on in it. During a series of frustrating sessions, a mental-institution psychiatrist (Kravits) tries to get an evasive patient called Larry (Hoch) to examine his neuroses, which have been jolted to light as the result of a contretemps with a woman in a public place.

The repeatedly discussions of whether the patient has a problem or the doctor has -- or even if the patient is the patient and the doctor the doctor or the doctor is the actually the patient and so forth -- reach no resolution. Eventually, though, the chain-link enclosure the men occupy splits in halves that glide towards the facing wings to expose a dining-room on a higher level. There, a father (Allen Lewis Rickman) and a pregnant woman (Katherine Borowitz), expecting a son she plans to name Larry, carry on a scream fest that also comes to no conclusion.

So while what transpires in "Talking cure" is simple to explain, what it's meant to convey is inexplicable. Aside from perhaps suggesting that prenatal influences can't be overcome, Coen delivers "Talking Cure" as a lot of incurable, close to unendurable talk. Relatively speaking, it's far less engaging than "George is Dead," which, relatively speaking, is nowhere near as rewarding as "Honeymoon Motel," which, relatively speaking, is worth at least some -- but not all -- of the price of admission.

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