Relatively Speaking, or,
How Your Mother Only Had You So She Could Ruin Your Life
Three plays by three icons of Jewish comedy.

By Sephora Markson Hartzrelativelyspeaking_large.jpg

Three years ago, while working at a university library, I chanced upon a newspaper ad for the Coen Brothers’ film A Serious Man. I was leafing through stacks of Israeli periodicals, and I noticed that the film’s Hebrew title was not “A Serious Man.” It was “A Good Jew.”

Funny, I thought—but also fitting. For the film wasn’t really about the dilemmas of modern masculinity, as the U.S. title implied. It was about a more specific Jewish dilemma: the challenge of becoming a mensch.

That made sense. But would non-Jews understand the film’s incisive Jewish commentary?

The same question came to mind while watching Relatively Speaking, three one-act comedies that opened October 20 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City. Directed by John Turturro and written by Ethan Coen, Elaine May, and Woody Allen (respectively), these are not comedies, per se. In fact, Woody Allen’s “Honeymoon Motel” is the only consistently funny one among them. But they do share an obsession with Jewish mothers, although only Allen seems to get her “right.”

Allen’s contribution, “Honeymoon Motel,” is a delight, combining the slapstick of Allen’s early career with the golden wit of films like Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994). It’s a welcome departure from his brooding ruminations on dysfunctional families in films such as Interiors (1978) and, more recently, Cassandra’s Dream (2007). That’s not to say Allen has abandoned the joys of familial discord. Hardly. All the elements of family neurosis—and more serious problems—are in place: sex; betrayal; adultery. The plot revolves around a married man who steals his stepson’s fiancé—at the altar, no less. When the rogue couple absconds to their honeymoon suite, they are confronted by a stream of visitors—every relative who was at the weeding, plus the rabbi, a hapless lush. Predictably, chaos ensues. When the groom’s hysterical Jewish mother confronts her husband (Steve Guttenberg), he asks her what on earth she could have expected. “That life would be boring and a-sexual and we’d grow old together,” she retorts,  “[just] like everyone else we know.”

Somewhat predictably, it’s really the Jewish mother (an exquisite Caroline Aaron) who’s the problem. She idolizes her son, and makes her filial love a wedge between the poor boy and his would-be bride. And she does it all with such well-meaning earnestness that the son doesn’t realize he’s been consigned to a life of misery and emotional co-dependency.

The Jewish mother isn’t treated any kinder in Ethan Coen’s play, “Talking Cure.” Coen has used the “Jewish mother” stereotype successfully before, but this time, he just misses the mark. Here, she comes across as argumentative and unlikeable—a force of personality we cannot stand. Worse, we’re not even sure what her relationship is to the plot.

Before she even enters the play, we meet Jerry, the main character. Jerry, we learn, has suffered an “incident,” and has wound up in a psychiatric ward, where he is confessing his mishegas to a therapist. That mishegas includes—naturally—Jerry’s meshuggeneh mother, whom we’ll meet later on. Unfortunately, the talking cure is doomed, and this uninspired skit about a guy with mother issues never quite coheres, even after we’ve met the parents (yes, both of them). In fact, only one hackneyed message comes through: it’s the mother’s fault.

Where Coen fails, Elaine May succeeds. Her play, “George is Dead,” is an unexpectedly dark rumination on maternal love and its casualties. This is the only play not explicitly about a Jewish family—or a Jewish mother (which is somewhat ironic, given that May made her name in the ‘60s by playing, among other roles, “The Jewish Mother” opposite Mike Nichols in their famous comic routine.) Although the mother, billed as “Nanny,” makes only one, brief appearance at the play’s end, her presence informs every turn of the plot.
The bulk of the action unfolds between Carla and Doreen, two women adjusting to life without their husbands (Carla’s is leaving her; Doreen’s, the titular “George,” has just died). The women are acquaintances, but they haven’t seen one another in years until Doreen shows up at Carla’s humble apartment (humble by Doreen’s luxe standards, anyway). They’re connected only through ”Nanny,” a woman who coddled and cared for Doreen, while withholding affection and love from Carla, her actual daughter.

Having just learned of her husband’s passing, Doreen turns to Carla for emotional support. Against Carla’s better judgment (she’s presently embroiled in a highly-charged argument with her own husband), Carla takes in Doreen. Why on earth would Carla would assist Doreen at such an inopportune moment, we wonder. But in fact, it’s clear: By taking care of “Nanny’s” beloved Doreen at a time of crisis, Carla hopes to finally reach her mother.

Our despair at Carla’s loneliness is heightened by Doreen’s juvenile, if comedic, whimsy. Doreen, learning of George’s death, laments her sudden capacity to muster an adult emotion: “I don’t have the depth to feel this bad!” It’s funny, yes. Though it also illustrates yet another luxury enjoyed by Doreen: late into middle age, the woman has always had caregivers, from Nanny, to George, and now Carla. Carla herself, of course, has spent a lifetime competing for any sort of
attention, but most especially her mother’s.
In the play’s concluding moments, “Nanny” finally appears to support Doreen as the threesome sets off for George’s funeral. Again, Carla is forgotten. Not only is her own marital strife unimportant, but when she tries to bond with Nanny and Doreen through their shared grief, she is rebuffed—by her mother. As always, Carla stands alone. When will “Nanny,” whose cold remove seems to make her much the opposite of the over-involved, emotive “Jewish mother,” decide to choose her own daughter, for once?

Which brings me back to my musings on cultural access, earlier. Does it matter whether these plays are about Jewish families? Do you need to be Jewish to “get” the conceit of these particular plays? To understand some tokens of cultural currency, it is helpful to have your J-card. Fortunately, in this case, we’ve all got a mother.

Can’t get enought of Jewish mothers? Visit “THE JEWISH MOTHER” slideshow on Slate.
Sephora Markson Hartz is the Assistant Editor for Secular Culture & Ideas. She received her Master’s of Theological Studies in Jewish Studies from Harvard Divinity School (’10), and a Bachelor of Arts from University of California, Berkeley, in Religious Studies, with an area of emphasis in Jewish Studies (‘07).  

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