Theater Reviews

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Atlantic Theater Company at Atlantic Stage 2, New York
Through Feb. 10

Ethan Coen and his brother Joel have made some of the smartest and most entertaining films of the past 25 years, from "Blood Simple" to "Barton Fink" and most recently "No Country for Old Men." But Ethan's foray into theater via three one-acts warily titled "Almost an Evening" (a world premiere) is, to put it kindly, not up to standard.

In this 85-minute dalliance with the stage, Coen's third entry is the strongest. Titled "Debate," this play within a play begins with a set-to between a humorously foul-mouthed and apparently Jewish God Who Judges (F. Murray Abraham) and a boringly gracious, apparently Christian, God Who Loves (Mark Linn-Baker). Cut to a disagreement between two members of the "audience" (Mary McCann, Jordan Lage), then to a restaurant where the "actor" playing God Who Judges and his Lady Friend (Elizabeth Marvel) fight so viciously that God can't perform the next night. The debate, in other words, rages on.

To say that "Debate" is the best of three, however, is not saying much. What's appealing about this sketch is the spectacle of God -- gray shoulder-length hair, white gown and all -- bawling out the audience, usually with every four-letter word he can muster. "Like the body-piercing ... Made in my image, right? And you're gonna what, put metal rings through it?"

Abraham dives into the part with such exuberant aggression that you wish Coen had found away to bring this ferocious patriarch back for a second round, though God's Understudy (an hilarious J.R. Horne) is purposely and amusingly inept.

If No. 3 on the roster is more sketch than play, its predecessors are even more lightweight. "Waiting," the curtain raiser, is a variation on the joke about the guy (Joey Slotnick) who has died and thinks he's in the anteroom to heaven, only to discover that he really has gone to hell (the audience is ahead of Coen on this one). "Four Benches" involves a disillusioned British spy (Jonathan Cake).

As a playwright, Coen has a way with dry, funny dialogue -- much as he does in his screenplays -- but he has little sense of where he wants to take his thin plots. The result is that, instead of ending, or even leaving us enjoyably up in the air, his one-acts tend to evaporate.

Director Neil Pepe, artistic director of the Atlantic Theater, stages each play with a good deal more sound, fury and rearranging of furniture than these uncomplicated pieces require. But then, how else to convince us that these slight one-acts are creating "Almost an Evening"?

ALMOST AN EVENING
Atlantic Theater Company at Atlantic Stage 2 in association with Art Meets Commerce
Credits:
Playwright: Ethan Coen
Director: Neil Pepe
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Eric Shim
Cast:
F. Murray Abraham, Jonathan Cake, J.R. Horne, Jordan Lage, Mark Linn-Baker, Elizabeth Marvel, Mary McCann, Del Pentecost, Joey Slotnick
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