Evenings of one-act plays on Broadway are uncommon these days. But Relatively Speaking, which started previews at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on September 20 and officially opens on October 20, brings together three one-acts by Ethan Coen, best known for the movies he wrote and directed with his brother Joel like Fargo, A Serious Man, and No Country for Old Men; Elaine May, a playwright (Adaptation), director (The Heartbreak Kid), and screenwriter (Heaven Can Wait, The Birdcage, Primary Colors); and Woody Allen, who probably needs no introduction, but his over 40 films include Annie Hall, Manhattan, and most recently, Midnight in Paris. The collection is called Relatively Speaking because all three plays have to do with families, but it could also refer to the relationships between the artists involved, many of whom are frequent collaborators. A closer look at the cast, playwrights, and director is like playing a game of six degrees of separation. “Many [of the cast and creative team] had worked with each other before and, of course, that’s always comfortable because there’s a certain unwritten language,” says producer Julian Schlossberg.
To see just how deep some of the connections are, one can start with John Turturro, who directs all three plays, and Turturro’s wife Katherine Borowitz, who also stars in Talking Cure and appeared in A Serious Man and The Man Who Wasn’t There (another Coen brothers film). Turturro has directed his wife in two films, Mac and Illuminata, and has a long history with Coen, having appeared in his films Barton Fink, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and The Big Lebowski.
Schlossberg was largely responsible for bringing this group together. It began when May brought him a new one-act, George is Dead. (Schlossberg produces all of her plays.) In 1995, he had produced Death Defying Acts—another trio of one-acts with plays by May, Allen, and David Mamet—off-Broadway. Schlossberg thought of Allen again, who said yes. They were still looking for one more play when Schlossberg happened to be at the Atlantic Theatre Company and noticed a lot of old show posters of one-acts by Ethan Coen. Schlossberg mentioned this to his co-producer Letty Aronson—the producer of all of Allen’s films—and she asked Coen to come onboard. “Unlike a lot of plays that take a long time to be put together, especially if you’re doing three—iconic writers no less—it came to pass very quickly. I would say probably less than 9 months, less than having a baby, but we had 3 babies,” says Schlossberg. “They all were interested in working with each other so that was very fortuitous.”
Casting was a bit trickier. “We saw an enormous amount of actors. Because these writers have a different voice,” says Schlossberg. It was a long process because the director, playwright, and producers all had to agree on each actor, and it was also a question of casting people who could play multiple parts. “The best thing to do was to cast each play individually for the best actor we could and then see if any of them could possibly double or even hopefully triple in other plays,” Schlossberg says. “We didn’t get as many as I’d like, but we have four actors who are doing at least two roles. But the process was very arduous.”
They ended up with a cast of 16 that includes many faces and voices that will be familiar to audience members, such as television stars Marlo Thomas (That Girl) and Grant Shaud (Murphy Brown) and film actor Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy, Cocoon, Three Men and a Baby). The two youngest actors in the cast are Bill Army, making his Broadway debut, and Ari Graynor (The Little Dog Laughed, Brooklyn Boy). Schlossberg says the two had no problem keeping up with the seasoned group. “I think everyone got caught up in working with each other,” he says.
“This was really as good a rehearsal process as I’ve ever been involved with,” says Schlossberg, who has produced his share of plays on and off Broadway. “I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that people who were acting in these plays so respected the writers and director of the play. If you have a great regard for the people you’re working with, you tend to behave much better.”
Julie Kavner, featured in Honeymoon Motel, is best known as the voice of Marge Simpson and as Brenda Morgenstern on Rhoda and has appeared in seven Woody Allen films. Her experience of rehearsing with Allen was different than she remembers from working with him on so many movies: “He’s much more hands-on with the actors. It’s a farce—I can let that out, I believe—and he’s very specific about the rhythms of it. Very, very, very specific, and that’s not how I remember him from the films.”*
So what else can audiences expect to see in Relatively Speaking? The plots have been kept very carefully guarded. “Um… I can say I’m a mother-in-law. Sort of. I’m a mother. You can say that,” is all Kavner will divulge. But what can be said is that Talking Cure, the shortest of the three, is a very dark comedy about “the sort of insanity that can come only from family,” according to the press release. The second play is George is Dead, which “explores the hilarity of death.” An intermission separates the two from the final piece, Allen’s farcical Honeymoon Motel. Schlossberg stresses that these are three very different kinds of comedies: “When you have three iconic writers, you have three chances to enjoy yourself.”
*Kavner’s quotes are taken from an interview by Eric Grode courtesy of TDF Stages.
By Linda Buchwald