With or without his brother Joel, Ethan Coen has long been partial to characters who function beyond the social pale. (The protagonist of his creative contribution to “Relatively Speaking,” now playing on Broadway, is a murderous psychopath.) Although there are no actual criminals in “Happy Hour,” the misfits, losers, and malcontents in this omnibus of one-act plays are still pretty sour specimens of humanity. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but for some reason, scribe has also made them devoid of any redeeming charm whatsoever. Which is exactly how helmer Neil Pepe has cast, directed, and essentially damned them.
Hoffman (Gordon MacDonald), the central character in “End Days,” is far and away the crankiest one in the bunch. A doom-and-gloom merchant who combs the newspapers for every sign that mankind is going down the tubes, Hoffman takes his discontent from one bar to another, ranting and raving to perfect strangers about wars, energy crises, global contraction, galloping consumption, and all the other “serious social shit” that’s driving him crazy. The man actually makes some intelligent points, but his rage makes him so incoherent, he’s a galloping bore.
Ted (Joey Slotnick), the 1970s session musician in “City Lights,” is no more sociable (or less boring), but his self-loathing makes him marginally more sympathetic — at least, to the first grade teacher who overlooks his atrocious manners because she finds him “sad and lonely.” But Coen squashes that compassion as effectively as he undermined whatever respect we might have felt for Hoffman’s intelligence.
And just to give himself a perfect batting average, scribe also demolishes any attention-must-be-paid concern for the sad-sack traveling salesmen in “Wayfarer’s Inn.” Shooting the breeze in their cheap motel room, Buck (Clark Gregg), an enthusiastic womanizer, and his depressive pal Tony (Lenny Venito) get into an existential discussion about the alienation of modern life that isn’t half bad. But, true to form, Coen veers off-point into the mannered conversation of a surreal dinner date.
Coen’s world view is dyspeptic to say the least, but the last thing any play about alienation needs is an alienating production. The curious thing about this show is how conscientiously helmer Neil Pepe (the Atlantic’s a.d.) works to keep the material from being fun. The sets are dismal, the production style is lugubrious, and the quirky characters ill-served by the dour performances.
Coen can certainly write a scathing line. A character in a morbid funk tries to reassure a friend that he’s not really suicidal “I’m just feeling a little, I don’t know — Canadian.” (Which is just plain brilliant.)
But he desperately needs a dramaturg, or an editor, or maybe just a director who knows how to save him from himself.