In this new set of three plays written by Ethan Coen jokes about office politics and political offices – the middle segment concerns an anal retentive Homeland Security suit – remind of mediocre Dilbert strips and the worst sections of Ethan and brother Joel’s most recent film Burn After Reading. After all, with so many contemporary narratives probing the minutiae of office interactions (The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, etc.), it’s hard to imagine what new territory this latest addition to the genre hopes to discover. The goal seems to be a mixture of political commentary and mythic moral tales: the first segment challenges obedient passivity; the second asks how political responsibility trickles into home life irresponsibility; and the third questions value systems that prize material wealth. Throughout, though, clichéd writing and uneven acting detracts from whatever insights Offices might have offered.
In the first section, “Peer Review,” office dissenter Elliot (Joey Slotnick) channels Paul Giamatti at his most irritable while trying to provoke his co-workers with misplaced references to the Stazi in East Germany and Kafka’s alienating tales of bureaucratic exploitation. All stuttering stiffness with virtually no spirited belief in his undercooked (yet appealing) pronouncements, Slotnick can’t really carry the piece, and doesn’t get much help from his supporting characters. The script is also frustratingly stale – jokes about sex at the office lost their edge sometime during the fourth season of Seinfeld – and in a strange twist, the segment’s best scene features no dialog, just awkward stares and laughter around the office cooler. This is the kind of eloquent white-collar truism that could justify a theater entry in the TV- and movie-dominated office comedy genre, maximizing the participants’ tortured smiles and fidgety stances. Sadly, this is the segment’s strongest moment.
The rest of the play’s sections – which feel more like sketch comedy than short theater – are at least more entertaining for featuring much stronger leads. The “Homeland Security” segment feels a lot like leftovers from Burn After Reading, with John Bedford Lloyd doing J.K. Simmons (who played a CIA director in that film) with a touch more self-consciousness and, consequently, sadness. Still, Lloyd adheres to the typically Coenesque hardboiled loudmouth mode, drowning out more promising and nuanced characters like his wife (Marry McCann) and youngest son (Daniel Yelsky). Jokes about Americans’ paralyzing, government-stoked fears – for instance: “We worry so that other people don’t have to. They can, but they don’t have to.” – get old fast when they’re delivered at such rapid-fire speeds. Laughing at the paranoid delusionals in charge of national security stopped being clever when Bush Jr. was re-elected.
The final short play, “Struggle Session,” opens and closes with unpleasant firings, and the time in between is spent in existential contemplation of the rat-race lifestyles we seem unable to outrun. This play, Offices’ strongest, at least seems in touch with current job market anxieties and the sense that we’ll have to start adjusting to lives that aren’t regulated by 9-to-5 schedules. As the Bum, F. Murray Abraham carries the scene with incredible humor and charisma (think of a fast-talking version of Diedrich Bader’s Lawrence in Office Space). Still, whatever insights the segment (and the entire play) offers are couched in jokes about contorted sex moves and the like, as if Coen is using humor as a refuge rather than a tool for prying open our fantasies and fears. Though some inspired acting and a nifty sliding, rotating set by Riccardo Hernandez keep the entertaining punchline-driven play moving, Offices doesn’t really seem to know where it’s going.