It's the pesky little things that make up Larry David's infinitely expandable comic universe. All those petty grievances and minor disputes, the slights and slips, the miscues and forced apologies — so flustering in our own lives, so hilarious in his.
The worldview is simple — to exist is to be vexed. From this formula, David has spun his television immortality, both as a co-creator of "Seinfeld" and as the nutty force behind "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which he plays a version of himself wending his way through various banal purgatories.
This gift for stringing together minuscule moments of frustration and fury — of making half-hour comedies out of pebbles in shoes — is ideally suited to the small screen. On the stage, however, the smallness and the shtickiness are clumsily magnified, as "Fish in the Dark," David's Broadway debut as writer and actor, uncomfortably reveals.
The play, which opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre under the direction of Tony-winner Anna D. Shapiro, is already one of this season's best sellers — a show that doesn't need rave reviews to become a hit and isn't likely to get them. This is an overextended sitcom that would like to become a farce but settles instead for some hoary Neil Simon middle ground.
There are laughs, to be sure, in this comedy that begins with a phone call in the dead of night — rarely a good thing! — and proceeds to find humor in hospital vigils, confusing last wishes and grief transmuted into lust and greed. But stretched out over the length of about three and a half episodes of "Curb," the show huffs and puffs its way to the finish line like a geriatric marathoner wheeling an oxygen tank behind him.
It's not surprising that David's playwriting inexperience would show. What is astonishing is that the production would compound the problem by obediently following David's lead instead of channeling his comic instincts in a more theatrical direction.
This is a case in which the stage appears to have become star-struck by television. How else to explain the protracted set changes that take place between hospital and home or the humongous cast of 18, of which the great majority of players are given no more than a jokey trait or two and various versions of an identifying laugh line?
David is writing without regard for the logistical realities of the stage. Between scenes, a scrim comes down upon which a death certificate with dancing letters is projected, accompanied by some jaunty jazz by David Yazbek.
This is supposed to distract us from the cumbersome job of loading in one of Todd Rosenthal's sitcom sets. It's effective the first couple of times, but it grows wearying. No wonder the production occasionally resorts to playing scenes in total darkness. Clearly the exhausted stagehands need a break.
David is known for encouraging actors to supplement his writing with improvisation — an effective strategy for a boutique cable TV show but not a viable option for Broadway, where a final edit isn't permitted and actors haven't multiple seasons to make their underwritten roles their own. Here, everyone falls back on familiar routines.
The family meshugas is set in motion by a father's dying wish to his sons that is more maddeningly ambiguous than it should be. Sidney (Jerry Adler), wheezing from his hospital bed, says to either Norman (David) or Arthur (Ben Shenkman) that he wants their mother to live with one of them after he dies. But who's the lucky guy?
This silly premise, better suited to TV Land nostalgia than a contemporary Broadway comedy, sends us back in time to when mother-in-law jokes were all the rage.
David merely gives us 21st century variants of the old comic clichés.
Shapiro has gathered a spectacular cast, and her actors bicker and gripe with ferocious gusto. But it's not easy to breathe life into these stereotypes.
There's the overbearing mother (played by the formidable Jayne Houdyshell), who has a tense relationship with her fed-up daughter-in-law (a fiery Rita Wilson). Brenda can't stand how her husband, Norman, who's in the urinal business and anxious about money, won't stand up to the old battle-ax.
Naturally, the Latina maid (Rosie Perez) turns out to have had a long-standing affair with the dead patriarch, who's the father of her son (Jake Cannavale). She cooks up a ghostly scheme with Norman that will get his mother out of his house (and in the process save his marriage) and fund her son's college education.
David, looking perfectly at ease on stage as a more middle-class version of his usual persona, is at his best when his character is fixated on the small stuff. He's irritated by the tactlessness of his more handsome and successful brother bringing a date (Jenn Lyon, as the requisite blond bombshell) to the hospital and spends a good deal of time wondering about whether he needs to tip the doctors. (Better to skip over the vaudeville-worthy sex jokes and the running gag about who gets to keep the Rolex.)
It's not easy to buy the excellent Shenkman as Norman's brother — nephew is more like it. (Do men of David's income bracket really have no idea how old they are?) And it's a shame that Marylouise Burke, who plays Sidney's grasping sister, doesn't have more to do but add her rasp to the hospital din.
But "Fish in the Dark," whose red herring title harks back to a dinner party that started the rift between Norman's wife and his parents, has an embarrassment of riches and a poverty of theatrical imagination. Fans will flock, money will be made, and with any luck, David will be able to pull some material for that final season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" he's been teasing us about.