It’s not really possible to be as big of fan as Seinfeld as I am without also being a fan of Larry David. Not only is he the co-creator of the show and one of the writers for most of the show’s run, but he personally served as the inspiration for the character George Costanza. This is more than apparent if you’ve ever watched David’s brilliant HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm; George is not a character that was created from the ether, but an amalgam of David’s behaviors and things that have happened to him. In a lot of ways, Jason Alexander’s great performance as George was really an impression of David that was just slightly tweaked.
So I knew that when I heard that David had written a play for Broadway (Fish in the Dark) that I would have to go check it out; he had some fun skewering being in a Broadway show during Curb and since his series has been on indefinite hiatus for the last few years I’d really missed his brand of humor. Larry David originally starred in Fish in the Dark, but I didn’t get around to checking the play out during his run. What actually sealed the deal for me purchasing a ticket was when who they announced David’s replacement – none other than Jason Alexander! Since I’m on a quest to see all four of the leads from Seinfeld live and in person at least once in my life, this was a golden opportunity. Besides, who is better qualified to take over for Larry David than the guy who basically played Larry David for years? I was already going to the city on July 2nd for a matinee performance of Jake Gyllenhaal in Little Shop of Horrors, so I decided to double down and purchased a ticket for an evening performance of Fish in the Dark. That’s a lot of theater in one day, but I felt that I was up for the challenge.
I was so geared up to see Fish in the Dark that it wasn’t until I was sitting in the Cort Theater that I realized that I had no idea if this was a musical or a play. I was leaning toward a straight play, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if David had tried his hand at a little musical theater. I also realized that I had no freaking idea what this play was even about; I’d done zero research and was spending my hard earned money on name recognition alone. It turns out that Fish in the Dark a) is in fact a play, not a musical and b) is a comedy about a family and how they react to a death in the family (surprise – not well). The dysfunctional family dynamics in play as well as some hidden family secrets are mined for laughs; the writing and comedy beats will be familiar to anyone who is a fan of Seinfeld. In a lot of ways, Fish in the Dark is almost like an episode of Seinfeld; it’s not hard to imagine switching out the characters of brothers Norman (Jason Alexander) and Arthur (Ben Shenkman) with George and Jerry without having to do many re-writes. The play is littered with questions of etiquette and minutia that could have easily been addressed on an episode of Seinfeld: should you bring a date to visit your father in the hospital? Do you tip doctors? Did the 14 year old who gave a better eulogy than you have help writing it? Fish in the Dark is clearly from the mind of Larry David; it has his fingerprints all over the production.
In fact, since I’ve seen every episode of Seinfeld a bazillion times, I even picked up on a few lines that I’m pretty sure were actually used in Seinfeld. There is a discussion in Fish in the Dark about dying from an odor, which is also covered in “The Smelly Car” episode of Seinfeld. As soon as the actor said it on stage, I knew it was familiar. Actually, all of Fish in the Dark felt familiar, in a good way, because of the amount of time that I’ve spent with Larry David-related projects. It was comforting, like discovering a lost episode of Seinfeld or Curb that I never knew existed. I was at home with the comedic beats and ludicrous plot points almost immediately.
Of course, having Jason Alexander delivering David’s dialogue only served to give me a greater sense of déjà vu while watching the play. Alexander is so well versed in the art of being Larry David that it’s almost probably second nature to him and that comes through in the performance. He is relaxed and really becomes the character of Norman, which is really an extension of the character of George, which is really just an extension of Larry David. I have zero regrets about seeing the show with Alexander, but I can’t help but think what a treat it was to see David in his element on stage. He’s not really an actor, but if he’s doing some version of himself he can sell the hell out of it.
The rest of the cast of Fish in the Dark was great as well. Glenne Headly was very funny as Norman’s wife Brenda and Ben Shenkman played well off Alexander as brother Arthur. Jayne Houdyshell manages to almost steal every scene that she’s in as family matriarch Gloria and Rosie Perez was a pleasant surprise as family maid Fabiana (I’m not normally a big fan of her work). I didn’t realize it at the time, but Fabiana’s son Diego was played by Jake Cannavale, the son of actor Bobby Cannavale. It’s a smaller, but important, role and he does a nice job; it doesn’t hurt that he’s inherited some of his father’s good looks. The cast as a whole adapted quite well to the inherent weirdness and lunacy that is Larry David and hit all the right comic beats and sold all the bickering and obsessing. The only downside of Fish in the Dark is that because I am so familiar with David’s specific brand of comedy, some of the jokes and material felt a little like self-parody. The play is very funny overall, but occasionally some of the plot points or arguments felt a little too Larry David, even for me. That was the exception rather than the rule and the audience that I saw Fish in the Dark with laughed uproariously throughout the entire play.
I’m definitely glad that I was able to see Fish in the Dark, especially since it was a limited run production. If you don’t like the writing on Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, this isn’t the show for you, but it was ideal for someone like me. He cast was solid and the play was very funny in the expected Larry David-sort of way; he has a very specific voice and vision and if you connect with it, Fish in the Dark is right up your alley. For me, seeing the play was kind of like going to fantasy camp and seeing a live read of a Seinfeld episode. Larry David isn’t breaking a lot of new ground with Fish in the Dark, but even if it’s a little familiar it was still very funny and enjoyable. For Larry David’s first attempt at writing a Broadway show, Fish in the Dark is “pretty, pretty good.”
Fish in the Dark closes August 1st.