Relatively Speaking: Brooks Atkinson Theatre 21 October 2011

This was the start of my birthday weekend so before the play I took myself out to dinner at Salinas in Chelsea. Salinas is the name of my mother’s hometown. The food is Spanish influenced and Chef Luis Bollo used to have an El Bulli style restaurant that didn’t do that well in NYC (the Connecticut version did much better) but Salinas is tapas and fideos and roast pork and olives.

I knew I was going to eat at the bar. It’s separate from the restaurant with a few tall tables and a very pretty marble bar. The décor is a bit too modern for me – I know the food isn’t totally traditional Spanish so I wasn’t expecting an old world look but this felt too far in the other direction.

To start I ordered a Salinas Sidecar – saffron infused brandy, cherry heering liqueur (written as cherry herring liquor), fresh sour and dash of bitters. It was delicious. Even though it’s much more twee than I prefer it was not sweet and just felt like a wonderful way to start my birthday celebration. The bartender did the flip-the-shaker-behind-his-back move and I flinched and the bartender trainee laughed at me. I will never get used to things like that. There was all sorts of tossing and throwing and flipping of bottles. Just make my drink.

I was working off the bar menu (which isn’t on their website) so I don’t remember everything that was in the first plate but it was pulpo (octopus) in a cream sauce with a little bite and teeny plantain chips. The pulpo was sliced and cooked perfectly. Next was the croquetas – corn crusted veal cheeks, wild mushrooms, roasted apple, and Moscatell emulsion. The emulsion was sweet and a wonderful complement to the veal. As I was eating this Chef Bollo was out front and asked me how I liked the dish. During the night I saw him up front several times and he seemed to be involved with all aspects of the operation. At the bar, during happy hour, you can get a free beer, sangria, or red wine with two tapas. I went with the sangria, which was also delicious – not too sweet and made with a good wine.

Then I waited for my third dish. I’m not sure what happened or where the confusion was. It could have been the kitchen. The bartender could have forgotten to put it in. But I had to remind them about it. But it was well worth the wait. Crispy quail wrapped in apple-smoked bacon, roasted quince, green onion, mushrooms, and Rioja balsámico. There were four little quail legs and the sweet balsamic reduction mixed with the salty bacon satisfied every bud on my tongue.

For dessert I got the Rioja red wine crème brûlée with toasted nuts and vanilla cookie. The wine added enough acidity so that the dessert wasn’t too sweet. With it I had a 20-year old tawny port.

I took a cab up to the theater and on the way we passed a big marching band playing outside the bar next to the Joyce Theater. There was crowd spilling out of the bar and I would have loved to know what the story was there.

So onto Relatively Speaking – three one-act comedies written by Ethan Coen, Elaine May, and Woody Allen. Directed by John Turturro. Starring Caroline Aaron, Bill Army, Katherine Borowitz, Lisa Emery, Ari Graynor, Steve Guttenberg, Danny Hoch, Julie Kavner, Jason Kravits, Richard Libertini, Mark Linn-Baker, Max Gordon Moore, Patricia O’Connell, Allen Lewis Rickman, Grant Shaud, and Marlo Thomas. If some of those names don’t seem familiar, just look at their photos online and you’ll recognize many of them as some of the best character actors today. This line-up guaranteed a sold-out house. A sold-out house of mostly very old Jewish people. And the writers and director knew who they would be playing to. I was really expecting something interesting from Coen but he didn’t do any better than May or Allen in giving me Borscht Belt schtick. Yes, in the first two, there was a moment or two of seriousness where you thought about what sad lives these people had led but then there’d be another broad joke. Allen never stopped for a second to let you see these people other than stereotype Jewish characters. Turturro has the rabbi (Libertini) standing on the edge of the stage and playing to the audience. There’s no pretense of a fourth wall or that the audience isn’t there to laugh and not to think.

“Talking Cure” starts in a mental institution and at the end takes us back to the beginning and to what led the patient on his path. In “George is Dead” a self-absorbed socialite seeks comfort from the daughter of her former nanny. The daughter is still smarting from the fact that her mother showed more love to her charge than to her own child. And “Honeymoon Hotel” brings in a twist about ten minutes in – a twist that immediately makes you think of Allen and Soon-Yi and Mia Farrow and you then can’t forget about that no matter how much slapstick, moaning, and insulting is going on. That a character jokes about being molested as a child and her husband tells her she’s lucky because he didn’t have sex until he was 25 gives you an idea as to just how flat these jokes fell for me.

But the audience was roaring. They could not stop laughing, especially for the last play. I kept thinking maybe I should loosen up. But I’m no prude. I love a good politically incorrect joke. I love slapstick. I love broad comedy. But there was nothing to love here. I can’t say I expected much from Allen or even May. But Coen was a big disappointment – perhaps he really needs Joel.

Because of the writers and the cast this show is going to play to sold-out shows in a theatre with over a thousand seats so there’s no worries for them. But I think audiences deserve better.

By Carene Lydia Lopez