‘Fish in the Dark’ Theater Review: Larry David Goes for Vintage Laughs in Broadway Debut

Devotees of the “Seinfeld” co-creator will not be disappointed, even though his madcap story harks back to Broadway’s golden age

Last Updated: March 5, 2015 @ 7:17 PM

It’s to be expected that Larry David’s new play is laugh-out-loud funny. The big surprise, though, is just how sturdy and conventional his stage comedy is in an old-fashioned Broadway kind of way. David may have written cutting-edge TV, but “Fish in the Dark,” which opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre, is anything but cutting-edge theater.

Maybe “vintage” is a better word than “old fashioned” to describe “Fish,” which sports no fewer than 18 actors, a luxury that recalls the boulevard comedies of the 1930s.

Actually, “Fish” recalls not only the humongous casts but the madcap plots of Kaufman and Hart’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and “You Can’t Take It with You.” David’s humor doesn’t rely on such obvious touches as Egyptian mummies or exploding fireworks, but his story of a beleaguered son, Norman (David), who gets a young man (Jake Cannavale, son of Bobby) to impersonate his dead father (Jerry Adler) to hoodwink his bossy mother (Jayne Houdyshell) into moving out of his house (and giving away a significant portion of her inheritance) harks back to the pleasures of Broadway’s golden age, if not also a 1993 episode of “Designing Women” titled “The Woman Who Came to Sugarbakers.”

Whatever the inspiration for “Fish,” devotees of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” will not be disappointed, familiar as they are with David’s zingers on the human condition, especially the dubious joys of marriage: “I want to live alone. I just don’t want to die alone.”

Not every character in “Fish” is a comic gem; sometimes you can see David’s wheels turning with a few recurring gags that prove less funny the more they’re repeated: Norman’s wife (Rita Wilson) has total recall of every day of her life; Norman’s daughter (Molly Ranson) alternates between Cockney and proper British as she prepares for her role as Eliza Doolittle in a theater above a Hooters on Cahuenga Boulevard. But at least the gags are amusing the first time around.

On stage, David resembles a Jules Feiffer cartoon, his long body reduced to just a few slashes of the pen. As a writer, he’s generous, not hogging all the best lines for his character. But no one delivers David’s quips better than David, although he does have a tendency to punctuate silences with a wild flapping of the arms, as if he’d suddenly been possessed by Al Jolson singing “My Mammy.” In contrast, Ben Shenkman, playing Norman’s younger (much younger) brother, is nearly as funny with half the gestures and half the stage time.

Anna D. Shapiro directs a seasoned mob of scene stealers, and manages somehow to keep them from stepping on each other’s laugh lines. She and her actors also make you forget that Shenkman and Houdyshell (David’s junior by seven years) look young enough to be Norman’s son and wife, not his brother and mother. If an actress of David’s age indulged in this kind of casting trick, she’d be laughed at — and not in a fun way.