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NEW YORK — It will surprise nobody that Ethan Coen was going for irony in the title of his latest trilogy of one-act plays. But the unbridled misanthropy of Happy Hour is like an acid enema. Especially in the first two entries, that sourness can be hilariously cathartic, and audiences who have spent any time ranting at the world will relate. Even in the writing’s weaker patches, some zesty character work from a bunch of fine actors provides compensation.
Following Almost an Evening and Offices, this is Coen’s third and most thematically cohesive program of shorts for the Atlantic Theater Company. It’s also an improvement over his wispy contribution to Relatively Speaking, the current Broadway anthology that teams him with Woody Allen and Elaine May. Observers waiting for Coen to evolve into more than just a doodling playwright probably won’t adjust their impression that the filmmaker is slumming it in the theater. But taken on their own limited terms, these playlets are not without bite.
The opening piece, End Days, is a half-hour of hyper-articulate bile, Mametian profanity and digital-age alarmism delivered in a virtuoso turn from Gordon MacDonald. His eyebrows alone convey a glowering rage that’s hypnotic, making him the human equivalent of Oscar the Grouch. He plays a dyspeptic bar regular ready to spew his indignation about the global energy crisis, the impending mass freakout and anything else on his mind to the closest pair of ears, whether they’re listening or not. Returning home smashed each night, he exchanges a word or two – sometimes civil, sometimes not – with his unseen wife, who chimes in meekly from the bedroom, while scouring the newspaper for fresh sources of outrage.
To anyone acquainted with Bill Maher or the New York Times editorial pages, much of the opinionated barfly’s diatribes will sound familiar, if more colorfully expressed. But wedged in amongst all the virulent hostility are enough persuasive points to lend pathos to the inescapable cycle of one man feeding his anger and venting his disgust.
Joey Slotnick plays a different font of bitterness in the second play, City Lights. Ted is a session guitarist who switched two digits of his phone number to shirk an insincere promise to a music-enthusiast cab driver. Discovering he left something of value in the taxi, he is forced to track down the cabbie (Rock Kohli) using the fake number, which belongs to guileless first-grade teacher Kim (Aya Cash), newly dumped by her boyfriend.
Coen has fun toying with and then upending expectations by throwing together an irascible stoner who reeks of pessimistic resignation with a nerdy eternal optimist who looks for the best in people. (Kim’s juvenile pinafore dress and barrettes say it all.) Obviously, two lonely souls like these are never going to connect in this playwright’s cruel world. But the brutality with which Ted avoids that fate is too calculated in its ugliness, leaving a nasty taste that curdles the humor of what’s come before.
That can’t quite erase the pleasure of Cassie Beck’s sly characterization as Kim’s best friend and support network — she’s equal parts protective, judgmental and self-serving — or the spot-on body-language of all four actors under director Neil Pepe’s guiding hand.
The final part, Wayfarer’s Inn, opens and closes well, with two business-traveler buddies forced to share a room in an overbooked hotel. Philandering Buck (Clark Gregg) just wants to hook up with a local girl who has organized a double-date, while suicidal Tony (Lenny Venito) is too mired in despair to join him. The play articulates the trilogy’s overarching question: Is the harsh world outside devouring us or are we the negative force consuming it from within? But it’s derailed by a clumsy midsection in a Japanese restaurant with stereotypical female characters and a farcical non-English-speaking harridan of a waitress.
Pepe, who is artistic director of the Atlantic and has staged all three of Coen’s one-act lineups, is in his comfort zone here. That may be a drawback. If Coen wants to develop as a theater artist, he needs a less acquiescent collaborator more willing to challenge him to be dramaturgically adventurous. Too often his short plays rely structurally on cinematic devices like cross-cutting for effect, and he rarely manages to end them with a satisfying button.
But he has ideas, a sharp grasp of character, a sardonic point of view that balances smug superiority with a healthy tang of self-loathing, and a terrific ear for darkly funny dialogue. And that may be all that fans of the Coen brothers’ idiosyncratic movies need from these modest but popular theater excursions.
Venue: The Peter Norton Space, New York (runs through Dec. 31)
Cast: Cassie Beck, Aya Cash, Clark Gregg, Susan Hyon, Rock Kohli, Gordon MacDonald, Amanda Quaid, Ana Reeder, Joey Slotnick, Lenny Venito
Director: Neil Pepe
Playwright: Ethan Coen
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Sarah Edwards
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
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