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A CurtainUp Review
Almost an Evening
By Elyse Sommer
—original review by Elyse Sommer
The questions Coen fails to answer in Almost an Evening range from what to expect when you die (Waiting), whether someone working in the cold and killing atmosphere of a British intelligence agency can become a touchy-feely people person (Four Benches), and whether to believe a judgmental or a loving God (Debate). The tongue in cheek admission about posing questions without providing answers hints at Coen's admiration for Beckett. This is especially evident in Waiting, the first piece. It's a cross between Kafka's nightmarish bureaucratic world and Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Happy Days. Four Benches which follows indicates that Coen has also seen Edward Albee's Zoo Story. But while both Beckett and Albee are often quite funny, their plays are essentially mysterious and menacing whereas Coen's playwriting leans more towards humor evident in films made with his brother.. Nothing is particularly unfathomable.
Okay, so Coen isn't our new Beckett or Albee, but he clearly had fun writing Almost an Evening and so will anyone watching it who is willing to be entertained and give Coen credit for trying a new medium. He may not leave audiences pondering any of the questions explored during the intermissionless eighty minutes, but he will make them chuckle, and if the audience at the matinee I attended is an indication, often laugh out loud.
Almost an Evening is given a big boost by a top notch cast, all of whom appear at least twice. Joey Slotnick, whose work I'm not familiar with, drolly takes us through a recently deceased man's hellish wait (hopefully to heaven) in a windowless office. There's nothing to divert him except two dated magazines and a typist (Mary McCann) pounding out text on a manual typewriter at a rate of at least a hundred words a minute. She seems to have eyes in the back of her head but refuses to engage in any conversation. Jordan Lage, who like McCann is an Atlantic Theater founding member, gives his usual relaxed and on target performance as one of three Kafkaesque bureaucrats into whose offices Slotnick's heaven bound Nelson is summoned at intervals spanning thousands of years. Mark-Linn Baker, an actor who knows how to speak volumes with a look, expertly portrays another of the bureaucrats and also takes on a bigger role in the concluding play.
Jonathan Cake, best known to New York theater goers costumed for classic roles (the self-serving Greek husband to Fiona Shaw's Medea and most recently Iachimo in Cymbeline), is here in modern dress and reveals a fine comic sensibility as a British spy in Four Benches and, more briefly but also amusingly, as a Maitre D' in Debate.
The always marvelous Elizabeth Marvel, has the least stage time. She makes a walk-on appearance in the second play, but gets a chance to show off her acting chops as the off-stage girlfriend of F. Murray Abraham's God Who Judges in the play within the last play, Debate. Abraham, one of the city's busiest actors who can chew up even the most minimal scenery, zestfully does so as the Mametian bullshit destroying "God."
All three plays are short and feature multiple scenes. Coen, used to a camera for transitioning from one scene to the next, has yet to learn how to write with a full awareness of the burden such scene changes place on a live production. While director Neil Pepe does his best to keep the transitions as sleek as the production's overall look, the numerous between-scene blackouts and prop shifts are nevertheless intrusive and eventually tiresome.
Overall, Almost an Evening, is an enjoyable entertainment, but by the time the lights go down, opinions as to Coen's playwriting skills are likely to be as divided as the opinions of people at a presidential caucus — or the young man and woman debating what they've seen in the play within the concluding play. . .
She: "So you liked it?"
He: "I don't know, liked it, didn't like it. It was interesting. You didn't like it."
She: "It was not my cup of tea."
And speaking of a cup of tea, literally, a consumer note: The Atlantic Stage II is in a neighborhood with lots of great places to have tea or coffee, lunch or dinner. For anyone who likes authentic, inexpensive ethnic food, one of my favorites is La Taza De Ora at 96 Eight Avenue (between 14th and 15th Street) which serves expresso strong enough to put hair on your chest and delicious, made on the premises flan -- not to mention trencherman sized main meals.
©Copyright 2008, Elyse Sommer.
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