Shtik and Sensibility

By Alex Joffe
Friday, December 9, 2011

Theater can challenge preconceptions or play it safe.  Relatively Speaking, a set of one-act plays by Ethan Coen, Elaine May, and Woody Allen, rises to the challenge.  The plays are variations on the theme of the Jewish mother, and two are predictable—but one is unusual.

Ethan Coen is half of a well-known film-making duo (the other half is his brother Joel).  Coen's play, Talking Cure, begins with a psychiatrist and an institutionalized patient in a caged room. The old but still intriguing premise—Who is the doctor?  Who is the patient?—is smartly drawn, and the parts are energetically played by Jason Kravits and especially Danny Hoch as the patient, Larry, whose intelligence and menace are tinged with what might be called New York-style humor.

Short vignettes, borderline arguments really, press the story forward toward the underlying explanation for Danny's incarceration. Intriguingly, Coen plays with role reversals, definitions and language, noting for example that "empathy is an invasion, like Hitler." But with that, someone has said the magic word, and the roots of Danny's problems are played out in an argument across a dinner table on the eve of his birth. The dinner guests are late and the meal is becoming "Saharan." Hitler and Heifitz are argued over, loudly. In the end Coen appears to be channeling the yelling parents from a 1950's sitcom, or an old Woody Allen movie.

Elaine May's George is Dead is a late night home invasion by an older woman, Doreen, marvelously played by Marlo Thomas, who sweeps into the apartment of a young acquaintance to announce that her husband has been killed in a skiing accident. Thomas's portrayal is of an aging, rich, and vain woman whose superficiality is leavened with only enough self-awareness to deliver May's dry one-liners. "I don't have the depth to feel this bad," she notes early on, hinting at strenuous efforts to deny flickers of intelligence in favor of vapidity and dependence. May offers up only enough humor to keep up a pretense of comedy.

But the amusing perpetual childhood of the rich is just a setup for a protracted debate on aging and responsibility. The younger woman, Carla, is in fact the daughter of Doreen's former nanny, who is suddenly caught in an impossible triangle between Doreen, her angry husband, and her own mother. To whom do we owe our devotion? Whose needs come first? As Carla's mother comforts Doreen at George's funeral, which Carla stayed up all night arranging, the answer remains unclear. Some roles are reversed, but not all.

In contrast to May's ultimately sobering play, Woody Allen's Honeymoon Motel is played strictly for laughs. The blonde Jewish Princess, complete with a Ph.D. in Sociology, has run away at the altar with the groom's father. In the pink bridal suite in a Great Neck motel, all the characters assemble to reveal affairs, discuss their sex lives, and yell loudly. Allen's patented one-liner machine is in fine form, and the characters are not human beings but shopworn caricatures meant to resemble American Jews.

The thwarted in-laws argue about their various affairs. The rabbi, of course, is a pontificating ass who booms a eulogy at the slightest provocation and throws out biblical analogies while he craves a slice of pizza with sausage. The bald psychiatrist, really the shrink, takes notes and smiles. The jilted groom, handsome and young, is the mama's boy. The runaway bride stands around in her nightgown. The dialogue is downright vaudevillian: "He slept with a prostitute?" "She was not a prostitute, she's your sister!" The pointedly non-Jewish and self-admittedly uneducated pizza delivery man is the Greek chorus, Long Island's voice of sweet wisdom and reason. The effect is not so much a comedy of manners but an R-rated sitcom, reliable shtik and stereotypes on parade.

Relatively Speaking's significance is partially that such shtik is alive and well in the 21st century. The audience howled, but was it at the shtik or the idea of the shtik, the associations or recollections it stimulated? Both Coen and Allen's plays appear as refractions of shtik gone by, in Allen's case by one of the late modern masters. But who in the audience under the age of 50 could have direct experience of real people who look and sound so stereotypical? Are audiences laughing at realities, however exaggerated, or theatrical tropes?

Both Coen and Allen ultimately follow well-worn paths to elicit laughs about America Jewish dysfunction, mostly through the medium of yelling in Long Island or outer borough accents. Only May's central character is not identifiably Jewish, although perhaps this is implicit in the character and the conundrum of caring and divided allegiance. Not surprisingly, it was the only play of the three that was remotely challenging.

Shtik still sells, as do stereotypes. Jewish mothers, angry, loud, and repressed, remain pivotal, while Jewish fathers are angry, loud, and hen-pecked. Neuroses and nose jobs are the baseline issues—in effect the question of how to fit into one's family, one's self, and the greater New York area. No one is happy, everyone yells, and for Allen's characters, everyone remains—after all these years—predictably obsessed with sex.

A larger significance of Relatively Speaking is that leading American humorists, who happen to be Jewish, still either perceive Jews this way or believe such exaggerated depictions will somehow illuminate deeper truths about people or situations that will also be the source of laughs. Or maybe they just think that enough people will laugh. Conversely, do audiences, even in the 21st century, respond to stereotyped humor out of devotion to well-known writers, or from a need to see humor that they are told is safe? Theatergoers to Relatively Speaking want to like it. Maybe they just want tropes. As a Woody Allen character might say, the jokes were stale, but such large portions!

Not every example of theater needs to delve into the human condition, but cheap laughs at the expense of Jewish stereotypes is an old, if rather less than venerable convention. Perhaps that says something about the condition of the theater and American Jewish humor. We might ponder, then, about shtik and its future, and possibly even the need for new American Jewish humor. 

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