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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Yes, there are laughs but they are drawn from a pitch black palette. And don't count on any of this to leave you feeling cheery or that Coen leavens the overall sour mood with at least one happy ending. So if you're looking to escape from your troubles, these ruminations on all the ways in which, to use a cliché from the good old days when the French revolutionists dropped guillotined heads into baskets, the world is going to hell in a handbasket may not be to your taste. As one woman I overheard at intermission put it, "I've got my own problems I don't need the theater to make me feel even worse."
To move on to the quality rather than the less than happy mood of these plays, how does Coen's third outing with the Atlantic Theater company stack up to the first two? Just as I've like some but not all of the movies made by the Coen brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men), I've liked much but not all of Ethan Coen's work as a playwright. Of his first two collections for the Atlantic Theater — which marked his debut and Almost an Evening, which marked his debut, and Offices which followed — the second group showed enough progress to raise my hopes that Happy Hour, again directed by Atlantic's artistic director Neil Pepe, would be a perfect ten. Unfortunately, while the middle play, City Lights, came close to being a ten, the evening as a whole was actually less rather than more satisfying than its predecessors. Even though at approximately 2 hours, what's on offer is more expansive, the extra half hour only makes you wish, that the opening and closing pieces had been trimmed.
My quibbles relate to the plays, not the staging and acting which is impeccable. Pepe has directed the plays to work as a unit and with his usual attention to non-verbal nuances. He's also elicited strong performances from the 10-member cast which in today's budget conscious theater world is luxurious. Ricardo Hernandez, who also designed Almost an Evening and Offices, has turned the Peter Norton Space (one of the Atlantic's temporary homes while their home in Chelsea is completing its extensive renovations) into three distinct yet all of a piece locations. The several different apartments are all walkups which have the audience wondering who is clumping up the stairs (the suspense attributable to David Van Tieghem's excellent sound design). End Days
This is essentially a solo show starring Gordon MacDonald as a bitter man named Hoffman with five of the other cast members more or less human props. In between ranting about all the things that are destroying the country, not to mention his equilibrium, to anyone happening to share the stool next to him at a bar, he plops into an armchair in his apartment's living room clipping articles from the newspaper to add to an album he keeps to support and exacerbate his disgust with the world. There's a wife (Ana Reeder) but she's only an occasional voice from an unseen bedroom to indicate that feeding his anger is more of a high for Hoffman than hugging his wife.
To paraphrase the catchall title from Coen's debut collection, you might call this "almost a romantic comedy." While Joe Slotnick, who's been a presence in all Coen's plays, is the central character, this is more a full bodied play. Ted, the sessions musician Slotnick plays — and plays superbly— but the other actors also have major roles.
The way the playwright connects Ted to the other man, an Iranian cab driver (Rock Kohli) with song writing ambitions, Kim, a schoolteacher (Aya Cash) and her friend Marci (Cassie Beck) is that he accidentally left a tape he cut in the cab. His only hope to get it back is that the Cabbie will call the number Ted gave him instead of his own — which happens to be Kim's. Actually, another fitting title — that is, if Shakespeare hadn't used it first — for this would be A Comedy of Errors.
Ted and Cassie connect and despite their clashing attitudes about the need for at least trying to pursue one's dreams, their becoming romantically involved is not all that impossible. I won't tell you how Marci fits into this set-up and how the Cabbie further enlivens the comedy and reveals a side of Ted counter to the things he says. Let's just leave it at this: All's Well That Ends Well is not another possible title. However, despite being in tune with the sour mood that hangs over these plays, City Lights is nicely realized play, with some pungent dialogue, amusing interaction and an O.Henry twist to stay in synch with the collection's overall dark tone.
Unlike the previous plays, in which the central character was the sourpuss, this play about two friends who travel together for an unidentified business, has the cheerful Buck (Clark Gregg) as the pivotal character. Though married, he is a spirited, good time seeking philanderer. He refuses to be miserable about finding himself booked into a motel room not up to the standards to which he and Tony (Lenny Venito) are accustomed. Instead, he's looking forward to a nice dinner and sex with Gretchen (Ana Reeder). But not so Tony, who's expected to join them with Lucy (Amanada Quaid). The ugly accommodations have put his depression about a world he sees as inhospitable as this motel room. Actually Tony and Lucy are a great match, since Lucy is very much down on things, especially relationships. She also happens to be the play's funniest character-- but unlike City Lights, the detour in Wayfarer's Inn to a Japanese restaurant with a strangely threatening server goes on too long and the ending is more flat than twisty or really surprising.
To conclude, everything has been done to support this triptych: Good staging, costumes, smooth transitions between plays. But somehow, now that I've seen ten of Mr. Coen's playlets (the 10th being Coen's contribution to Broadway's less than wonderful foray into this genre of packed one-acts, Relatively Speaking), I can't help wishing that he would move his playwriting career to the next level — a single full-length play with less reliance on quirky slickness.
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