I was very nervous at first,” Anna D. Shapiro told The Jewish Week about her reaction to being chosen to direct Larry David’s “Fish in the Dark,” which opens this week on Broadway. “I adore the guy; he’s been so seminal in the formation of my own sense of humor. I didn’t want him to think that I wasn’t funny.”
Shapiro has directed the Broadway and Steppenwolf productions of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” along with the Broadway productions of “The Mother****** With the Hat,” “Of Mice and Men” and “This is Our Youth.” But none of these plays have returned Shapiro to her Jewish roots, she said, in the ways that this one has.
Shapiro grew up in Evanston, Ill., in a secular Jewish family that she describes as “very, very close.” A long-time member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago (which has just named her artistic director), she acted in 2004 in “I Never Sang For My Father,” about a widowed non-Jewish college professor who is dominated by his father. “I was so surprised that the parents and children talked to each other only once a year; everyone else in the cast thought that it was normal.”
“Fish in the Dark” is also about parent-child relationships; it focuses on two brothers, played by Ben Shenkman and David, who are dealing with their father’s death. The members of the older generation in the play “expect to be always disappointed,” Shapiro noted. “They have a worldview that was shaped by persecution. There’s a wonderful lack of sentimentality that comes from having to be pragmatic” — an uncompromising attitude toward life that in both the play and in David’s HBO sitcom “Curb Your Enthusiasm” leads to toward awkward, uproarious humor.
While episodes of “Curb,” which ended in 2011 after eight seasons, were developed through improvisation, “Fish in the Dark” was tightly scripted by David. “He often stops an actor from adding even a word to the dialogue, and throwing off the rhythm of the joke.”
Shapiro described David as a “master who assembles his wares in front of him, and watches everyone ping off each other.” While she noted that David is the “center of everything,” she described the play as a “real ensemble piece,” with a 15-member cast that includes Rita Wilson, Rosie Perez, Lewis J. Stadlen and Jane Houdyshell. The show has received tremendous publicity, including last weekend’s “60 Minutes” interview with David, and a plug by Perez on the “Today” show — both of which aired after the play had already broken box office records for advance sales ($49-$275; telecharge.com).
David is known for creating bizarre situations and exploiting them for maximum comedic effect. But Shapiro emphasized that, in the end, his humor derives from his characters. “You can’t just put someone you don’t know in a situation and expect it to be funny.” David’s humor is, she concluded, is about “people needing and wanting things.”