10/28/2011 04:57 pm ET | Updated Dec 28, 2011

Relatively Speaking : Three Isn't Always Better Than One

Three plays for the price of one sounds like a promising proposition, especially when well-known writers Woody Allen, Ethan Coen, and Elaine May are the forces behind them. That's what Broadway's new show Relatively Speaking boasts, drawing much intrigue from theater-loving New Yorkers. Although all three of the one-act comedies have moments where they meet the hype, there are far too many trouble spots to sweep under the rug in the name of respecting all of the greatness behind the project.

By far the best of the three shows is also the longest one, May's George is Dead. Marlo Thomas commands the stage as a selfish millionaire who discovers that her husband has died and that she's left all alone. All three of these plays examine in their own way the role and responsibility that family members have for one another, but only in George do we have time to get to know the characters well enough to care.

It's not that Coen's Talking Cure doesn't have legs. However, in the short period that we witness a psychiatrist and a mental patient discuss life and longing, there isn't much to show for their conversation. Through a flashback scene, Coen does try to add some substance to the lead character's predicament and to make him a more sympathetic character; but it's just not enough to satisfy the audience's need to fill in more of the blanks of this still-developing story. The couple of scenes we see show signs of potential, but as a short play there's not enough there to stand on its own two feet.

And then there's Allen's Honeymoon Motel, full of assorted cast and characters led by Steve Guttenberg but lacking in compelling drama or humor. For much of it, it comes across as a bad sitcom, full of setups and not-so-witty punchlines delivered in turn by various characters who wait their turns for their next chance to really stick it to someone. Not only was it hard to believe these people or situation -- a man runs off with his stepson's bride at the wedding -- were real, it was hard to imagine what Allen envisioned. With the stage so crammed full of people, nobody ever stood out or rounded out completely as a compelling character. Had the jokes been of a higher quality, we would have dismissed these shortcomings and pitfalls in the name of comedy. Since the jokes almost entirely missed, though, the holes in the framework really showed.

May's contribution soars above the others, and you can't ignore the fact that her play is nearly twice as long as the others. It's easier to forgive problem spots when there's enough goodness surrounding it.