Written by Ethan Coen
Directed by Neil Pepe
In its 125 minutes Happy Hour
, Ethan Coen's new trio of very obliquely thematically related one-acts premiering with the Atlantic Theater Company
(through December 31), has about one successful hour. The middle play, City Lights
, stands out, while opening drunken rant End Days
comes off slight and closer Wayfarer's Inn
takes way too long to get going. Throughout Coen, as he tends to do
, transposes cinematic devices like cross-cutting and off-screen sound onto the stage. When the dialogue is strong these techniques come off well, but too often they only extenuate the writing's stiffness.
This is most frustrating in End Days
, which is basically a monologue wherein Hoffman (Gordon MacDonald) outlines to occupants of neighboring barstools and, eventually, his unlucky bartender, how near the end is and why. It's a funny rant, and MacDonald does Coen's hard-boiled motormouth thing very well. "Sure, the religious end-is-nigh people, you can laugh at them
," Hoffman tells his first listener, "but this is scientists, this is, you know, credentialed people, stepping forward and saying, 'In my professional opinion, let's see here, we're fucked.'" Leaving the bar he struggles with the door to his apartment—door gags recur in all the evening's one-acts—avoids his unseen wife and clips newspaper articles before heading out for another drink. His increasingly ludicrous and incoherent apocalyptic ravings—"People're lost, don't know where to turn, they figure, 'Well let's try Jew-killing, that might help'"—are summarily dismissed near play's end, calling attention to this anxiety-tapping short's lack of substance and structure.
, by contrast, is not only well-written but given an inventive form through the use of cross-cutting. (Riccardo Hernandez's set proves sufficiently pliable for the many rapid transitions.) Cranky musician Ted (Joey Slotnick) forgets his demo tape in a cab after giving its Iranian driver a fake number to avoid helping him make a record. He ends up at the apartment of Kim (Aya Cash), the woman whose number he unwittingly provided, awaiting a call from the cabbie (Rock Kohli) who, in the meantime, drops the lost tape off at Ted's apartment. While the disgruntled guitarist discovers the apparently miraculously returned tape, the cab driver Behrouz meets Kim and her friend Marci (Cassie Beck). Coen sets up and then frustrates expectations of a double-coupling, while wondering how someone as ugly as Ted could have made such beautiful music. Slotnick gets great laughs with Ted's angry outbursts, but it's Cash who carries the play as the squirrelly, aloof teacher Kim, and delivers the evening's best line in City Lights
' final scene.
Whereas the middle one-act fits a terrific narrative arc into the short format, the evening's final play begins ponderously before reaching its meaty middle scene. Traveling businessmen Buck and Tony (Clark Gregg and Lenny Venito) have dinner plans with two women while they're in town, but Tony's existential crisis causes him to cancel, so Buck goes solo to meet Gretchen and Lucy (Ana Reeder and Amanda Quaid) at "a very authentic" Japanese eatery. Like Hoffman's stale End Days
rants, Tony's malaise comes off contrived. All three plays feature a man who's opted out of the social conventions governing civil society and thrown up their hands in exasperation. It's a gesture made more interesting when challenged than indulged, which has something to do with City Lights
' superiority to the plays between which it's sandwiched. (All three also feature a different, more or less offensively portrayed ethnic stereotype.) Wayfarer's Inn
gets on track when Buck, Gretchen and Lucy sit down to eat, and argue over the meaning of a hilarious story-within-the-story about a diver named Ricardo cutting his way out of a blowfish's stomach. "That's what you think about," Buck asserts. "Birth. Life. Struggle. And manliness—let's not forget that. Fucking. Inside-out fucking, fucking the fish from the inside, plunging his great big Latin knife. Many things going on in this story." If only there were as many things going on in each of these stories.
(Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia)