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A CurtainUp Review
Peer Review, Homeland Security and Struggle Session

Yes, I know why you call me Kafka. Because he wrote those books. Little men. Put-upon. By institutions. Nameless tormentors. . .You should call me 'Nameless Tormentor.' Or whatever. But not 'Kafka.' Please don't call me Kafka. . ..— Cassady, to Elliot, the office worker outraged at his low rating in Peer Review.

Yes we're gonna worry. That's what we do. We worry. So that other people don't have to.—Munro the chief operative in Homeland Security.

I gotta go home, tell my wife I got fired. Try not to feel like a loser.— Beck.
Oh, wow. I wouldn't know how that feels.— the Bum who stops Beck on his way out of the office where he's just been handed his walking papers.
Offices-Struggle Session
F. Murray Abraham as the Bum in Struggle Sessions.
(Photo: Doug Hamilton)
Film maker Ethan Coen has followed up his debut with another triptych of playlets. I found his initial effort, Almost an Evening, to be quite funny but flawed. In short, it lived up to its name by being almost an evening of fun theater, but not a completely satisfying one. Coen's name and a starry cast made this minor effort a big hit so that it had to be moved from Atlantic Theater's Stage II to another venue in order to extend its run.

Happily, Coen's second outing as a playwright shows him to be a quick study. His new one-act assemblage is more solid. The newest one-acts are again stand-alone pieces, but they are more successfully integrated to fit the umbrella title, Offices. Each piece tackles another aspect of contemporary office life. Unlike the middle and best play, Homeland Security, the office grunts and managers of Peer Review and the concluding Struggle Session give no indication as to just what the company they work for does, though the actors poertraying them deliver their lines with impeccable timing and incredibly funny body language.

Each play consists of a number of brief scenes and a twisty ending reminiscent of an O. Henry story. All work well on Ricardo Hernandez's on-the-mark, revolving and evolving set. That set's two deliberately nondescript gray cubbyhole offices don't just swivel around from scene to scene, but stretch out to, at one point or another, accommodate a street corner and a Homeland Security bigwig's office and home.

Peer Review revolves around Elliot, a lower level drone who goes slightly beserk when he sees his low ratings in the latest company peer review. We see him getting more and more paranoid and angry as he visits several co-workers and finally paints himself into a hopeless corner. Each scene has its own surprise ending. Joey Slotnick, a veteran of the Almost an Evening production, is riotously on target as the ridiculous Elliot. Like the actors who are his support team here, he turns up again playing a less front and center role in Struggle Session.

Homeland Security shines the spotlight on John Bedford Lloyd as Munro, an uptight, clueless government bureaucrat. The device driving this witty sendup of bureaucratic ineffectiveness is a lost briefcase. Its contents are unlikely to blow up the country but if seen by certain people they might just blow the lid on some of Munro's not so kosher activities. The possibility of his being sent to jail doesn't worry his savvy young son Bobby (Daniel Yelsky). As Bobby sees it, if dad's convicted for his unspecified crimes and misdemeanors, it's likely to be "one of those country-club jails." The surprise ending in this one comes with a double twist.

Struggle Session is likely to strike closest to the heart of today's many corporate employees losing their jobs. The playlet's pivotal job loser and survivor is a middle manager named Beck (done to nebbishy perfection by Daniel London). Corporate types who've been axed will recognize the dilemma of Shilling, Beck's superior (Greg Stuhr). But the undisputed chief funny man here is F. Murray Abraham as a street corner bum for whom Beck's situation turns into something of a miracle— at least for a while.

Unlike Almost an Evening, which he also directed, Neil Pepe this time around has seen to it that the scene to scene and play to play shifts move as smoothly as Hernandez's turntable set. While Coen's plays explore some Kafkaesque workplace issues, he's no more Kafka than the manager so addressed by Elliot in Peer Review. He's more like a story-telling John Stewart or Steven Colbert or the with a nod to O. Henry, the already mentioned master of short stories with surprise endings. Yet, If he keeps at this playwriting business, Mr. Coen is likely to become as deeply thoughtful as he is funny and entertaining.

To read the review of Almost an Evening go here.

Peer Review, Homeland Security, Struggle Session
Written by Ethan Coen
Directed by Neil Pepe
Cast: Daniel Abeles (Mark/ Peer Review; Louie/Homeland Security), F. Murray Abraham (Cassady/Peer Review; Bum/Struggle Session), Brennan Brown (Investigator/Hoeland Review: Colleague #2/Struggle Session), Aya Cash, (Laura/Peer Review; Emma & Secretary/Homeland Security) John Bedford Lloyd (Munro/Homeland Security; Lury/ Struggle Session), Daniel London (Beck/Struggle Session), Mary McCann (Judy/Peer Review), Joey Slotnick (Eliot/Peer Review; Colleage #1 Stuggle Session), Greg Stuhr (Brad/Homeland Security; Schilling/Struggle Session), C.J. Wilson (Carl/Peer Review; Wilson/Homeland Security; Colleage #3/Struggle Session), Daniel Yelsky (Bobby/Homeland Security) Sets: Ricardo Henandez
Costumes: Laura Bauer
Lights: David Weiner
Original Music/sound:Obadiah Eaves
Stage Manager: Alison DeSantis
Running Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes without an intermission
Atlantic Theatre Stage at 336 West 20th Street 212-279-4200
From 4/15/09; opening 5/07/09; closing 6/07/09.
Tue - Fri at 8pm; Sat at 2pm & 8pm; Sun at 3pm & 7pm
Tickets: $65.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/03/09 press preview
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