With their macabre humor and dark sense of irony, the Coen Brothers’ films offer a distinctively skewed view of Americana, appropriating genres from screwball to noir to convey a bizarre world in which heinous things happen. A similarly twisted perspective — and a reference frame ranging from Beckett to Mamet — is applied in Ethan Coen’s first solo work for the theater, “Almost an Evening,” three short plays that swap planet U.S.A. for a more abstract universe in which philosophical, existential and metaphysical questions bounce around, mostly without finding satisfying answers.
Two years ago, the Coens teamed with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and composer Carter Burwell on a pair of radio plays designed to pay homage to the golden age of audio drama. Performed in New York, Los Angeles and London, the project attracted the kind of A-grade talent most theater productions only dream about.
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Mounted for a limited run through Feb. 10 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s underground Stage 2 space (and sold out before it even opened), the new trio of playlets again has been given deluxe treatment — sharp direction from Atlantic a.d. Neil Pepe, slick, economical contributions from a pro design team, and a cast of seasoned stage performers that includes F. Murray Abraham, Elizabeth Marvel, Jonathan Cake, Jordan Lage and Mark Linn-Baker. But anyone expecting Ethan Coen’s second stab at stage work to yield a bolder step into the field likely will find this program unambitious.
First up is “Waiting,” in which Nelson (a sadsack human cartoon in Joey Slotnick’s put-upon turn) waits out eternity in a doorless room with no smoking, lousy reading material and only an uncommunicative typist (Mary McCann) for company. The idea of hell as a bureaucratic maze of unhelpful admin drones, maddening paperwork, missed deadlines and arcane rules is hardly new, but the vignette raises its share of wry smiles.
Next is “Four Benches,” which starts in darkness as a British intelligence agent (Cake) chats with a large, naked Texan (Del Pentecost) in a New York steam room, until a security breach leads to the latter’s killing. Exchanges on park benches in the U.S. and U.K. follow, between the agent, the murdered man’s father (J.R. Horne in an incisive characterization that recalls classic Coen types played by M. Emmet Walsh or Charles Durning) and the agent’s supervisor (Abraham).
A crisis of conscience leads the agent to attempt “a lifestyle change,” angling to cast off British reserve and embrace the openness of Texas.
Final seg, “Debate,” is the most complex. Abraham and Linn-Baker play argumentative twin Gods, taking turns at the lectern to offer their audience a choice between a deity who judges and another who loves.
Dressed in biblical white robe and sandals with flowing silver locks, Abraham gets the evening’s juiciest comic monologue, spewing salty profanities as he blasts humanity’s whiners and wimps for their stupidity (“Body-piercing, huffing gasoline, betting on chicken fights — what are you doing?”). Linn-Baker, outfitted like a New England academic, offers a more benevolent alternative, but their bickering ends in violence.
That conflict spills over to disagreements offstage, when two theater spectators (McCann and Lage) clash over their views on the performance, while Abraham’s arrogant thesp and his date (Marvel) lock horns over his elevated opinion of the piece and her dismissal of it.
The male endorsement of violence and the more sensitive female refusal of it is an issue perhaps pertinent to the brothers’ core film audience. But that reflection, and the playful deconstruction of an intellectual theater of ideas, both are rendered meaningless — which is Coen’s point — closing instead on an amusing gag.
Coen clearly is writing for a different medium here, not just scaling down film scripts, and the plays are not without skillfully deployed surprises in dealing with what one character describes as “intolerable existence.”
Any one of these short works would sit fine in the kind of theater company benefit where similar throwaway one-acts regularly get strung together. But while the modesty of its title may suggest the writer is still testing himself on the basics before attempting anything more substantial, “Almost an Evening” is largely unremarkable. Diverting but slight and too self-consciously clever by half, the plays amount to three extended absurdist jokes with soft punchlines.