Larry David, tall and thin as a ghost light, readies himself for the interview by reclining his lean frame on a couch that is part of the rehearsal set of Fish in the Dark, his new play. His interlocutor takes a seat on a neighboring chair.
"It's like therapy," notes David, sipping tea out of mug that bears the name of his director, Anna D. Shapiro.
On the surface it was a scene not out of keeping with "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which David played a largely superego-less rendition of himself, an entitled, neurotic, ill-mannered bull in Hollywood's china shop who was never at a loss for the wrong thing to say. In Fish — which is not just his first play on Broadway, but his first play, period — he also plays a version of himself. It's the one arrow in his acting quiver, he freely admits.
"Yeah, completely," he says. "It's me, with a different name. But not quite as sociopathic as the guy I play on television." David never intended to have his Broadway playwriting debut double as his Broadway acting debut. "That was the furthest thing from my mind," he says. "I had to be talked into this. I didn't write the play to be in it. I wrote it to sit back and enjoy it."
It turns out, however, that producer Scott Rudin's reputation as a man who gets what he wants is well deserved. "He's an extremely persuasive man," says David. "And he's ruined my life."
In Fish in the Dark David plays the son of a man who has just passed away; the action depicts both the lead-up to and the aftermath of that death. A black comedy, then? "I think it's safe to call it a that, yeah," he answers. Where he did he get the idea for the plot?
"My friend, Lloyd Braun, his father died," says David. Oh.
"Yeah, that's the usual reaction," he continues, and laughs. "There were some unusual and interesting situations going on around it. I thought, this sounds like a play. I told Lloyd, 'I think this is a play, I'm going to try and write this.' And I just started writing." (Braun, as only seems fitting, is a co-producer of the play.)
Now that he has acted on Broadway, in a couple of Woody Allen movies, and two hit sitcoms (including "Seinfeld," which he co-created), does he finally think of himself as an actor? "No." So he considers himself primarily a writer, then? "No." Um, an entertainer? "I'd say comedian."
Given that Larry David grew up in New York (Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, to be exact), one would assume that his childhood was replete with memorable family excursions to Times Square to take in the latest hit musical or play, and afternoons spent riding to old BMT line to score a cheap balcony ticket for the day's matinee. One would be wrong. The David family didn't go to the theatre.
"They had a couple show albums in the house," he says of his parents. "They had My Fair Lady and Oklahoma! and Flower Drum Song. They were in the stereo cabinet. We never saw a show. We never went once. I don't think I saw a show until I was 20 or 21. I think it was Hair."
Okay. So the theatre bug never bit young Larry. Then why a play now, at the ripe age of 67? Credit the late Nora Ephron.
"I saw Nora Ephron's play, Lucky Guy. I just thought, 'That must be a really interesting thing to do.' I had never thought that would be something I'd like to do or could do." A year later, following the passing of Braun's father, he began writing. He had a first draft in six months.
Somehow, Scott Rudin found out, because Rudin makes it his business to find out when notable writers and actors are theatre-ready. "He sent me an e-mail," tells David. It read: "I heard you wrote a play. Hello?"
Rudin knows a winner when he sees one. As of late January, Fish has taken in $13.5 million in advance sales at the box office.
There are a few giveaways that this is David's first play. First of all there's the oddball title, which is nothing that Robert E. Sherwood would have dreamed up. Then there is the large number of scene changes. David wouldn't say how many, except there are a lot. "It's too much to ask of an ex-'Seinfeld' guy to use one set," he protests. "We used to have 20 different sets on one episode. Twenty different scenes! It was crazy."
Finally there's the cast size, which is something Sherwood and his fellow mid-century dramatists would have recognized: 18 actors. That's more than four times the usual Broadway cast in this one-set-four-actors era. The ensemble includes such veteran players as Jerry Adler, Marylouise Burke, Jayne Houdyshell, Rosie Perez, Lewis J. Stadlen and Richard Topol.
"Scott keeps telling me, 'It's too many characters, too many characters,'" says David. "But once you start cutting some of this stuff, the whole thing falls apart. It's like that Jenga game."
He allows that the number of roles puts Fish in the Dark in Kaufman and Hart territory, but adds that he finds further kinship with the old days on Broadway.
"It does feel like play from another generation," he says. "But a dirtier version."