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A TV Guy on Broadway

March 4, 2015

This past year I managed to see all but one of the major 2014 Oscar contenders. That’s a lot of movies, but for the sheer number of hours poured into it, TV (and its close cousins Netflix, Amazon, etc.) is my medium. So, as a TV guy, I was a bit of a fish out of water when I wandered onto the Great White Way to catch a preview of Larry David’s Fish in the Dark.

Larry David is a TV guy too. He is the creator and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm which premiered in 2000 and ran for 8 seasons on HBO. That was after he co-created a little show called Seinfeld, named by TV Guide as the best TV show of all time. This pedigree, together with great demographics, set the stage for spectacular ticket sales – a record setting $13.5 million in advanced sales before its first performance. (About those demographics: Seinfeld, set in New York, ran from 1989 to 1998. This means that those 20 and 30-something fans are now in their 40’s and 50’s armed with the nostalgia and, more importantly, the discretionary income to brave Broadway ticket prices.)

The Cort Theater Marquee – LD on the Great White Way (Photo credit: T. Laemmel)

Fish in the Dark officially premiers tomorrow, March 5. Larry David wrote and stars in the play. The marquee exclaims, “His first time on stage since the eighth grade!” The Broadway tradition (astonishingly honored by all legit press) precludes the review of previews. But I’m a TV guy (and not a journalist); I abide by no such code.

It’s not a one-man show, as I had first surmised. I counted 18 actors when they came out for their bows. It’s a whole new set of characters, not quite Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, but definitely the usual suspects. The play centers on the death of a family patriarch. It’s a comedy, bordering on a sex farce. The story line and tone could be a two hour Curb pilot, except it’s live and it “feels” like a play.  The play begins with amplified voices from a bedroom offstage. That was fine, but as soon as the actors took to the stage I found it hard to hear all the dialogue.   I think it’s because Larry David is a TV guy. On a TV set you don’t need to project to the audience. To exacerbate the situation Larry David was a bit hoarse. That’s understandable seeing as he’s the main character (i.e., biggest talker) for eight shows a week (additional matinee shows on Wednesdays and Saturdays, dark on Mondays; another Broadway tradition).

My hearing has not yet started to deteriorate, yetI was still missing some of the dialogue. Because of the aforementioned clientele (mostly aged 50+), Broadway theaters have “Assistive Listening Systems” to boost the audio. Apparently I wasn’t the only one having a hard time. At the intermission there was a run on the booth doling out the headsets. But when I got back to my seat for the second half, I found the boosted audio felt uncomfortably like listening to a television blaring loudly from another room. I wanted a live experience, not canned sound, so at the risk of missing a word or two, I elected to go without.

Norman and Sidney Drexel
Norman Drexel (aka LD) shows his brother Sidney the correct way to stand when acting. (Photo credit: Fish in the Dark)

The next thing I noticed was how lanky and slim Larry David is. This is accentuated by his odd habit of arching backwards when he stands, hyperextended like a bow. You don’t see that on television. Otherwise much of what I saw I could have expected on TV. Larry David played a character that was very much like Larry David, no surprises there. All of the other actors were stage and TV veterans and did their parts admirably. Rosie Perez, as the housekeeper with a secret, was an unexpected and pleasant surprise for me (alas, not for you!) The dialogue was quick and witty, but palpably more TV sitcom-style than Broadway play.

A few other things bugged me. The audience clapped when recognizable characters came out on stage. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, except it revealed just how primed people were to revel in the cozy comfort of the tried and true, the Curb and Seinfeld familiarity. At one point LD is asked how something was (I forgot what) and he milked his reply, “Pretty good. Pretttty, pretty good!” and the crowd roared its approval. I’m sorry, for me the audiences’ response was just a bit too revealing of why we were all there. I thought embarrassingly of the folks that would shout “Nanu! Nanu!” at Robin Williams for years after his Mork & Mindy days.

And then there was the bit of a deus-ex-machina in the form of a text message towards the very end of the show that left a bad taste in my mouth. The only bit of weak writing, I saw it as a quick trick to patch the family back together, enabling us to leave the theater with a happy feeling. If you ask me, an ancient and awkward device for the kind of money we’re paying. How much exactly? A $140 a ticket for decent seats. Prices range from $49.00 to $275.00 when purchased directly from the theater if you can get them (most are on the resale market now). The $50 seats are in the nosebleed sections and $275 gets you the first few rows. Broadway is a unique experience, it is not TV after all, so one can justify the occasional extravagance. How much you like Fish in the Dark will depend upon on just how much you liked Seinfeld and Curb. In other words, your enjoyment depends on just how much of a TV guy/gal you are.

Larry David as Norman Drexel
Larry David as Norman Drexel.(Photo credit: Fish in the Dark)
LD on Broadway
LD’s Broadway debut (Photo credit: Fish in the Dark)

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