The guest chairs in way too many HR departments are being kept warm these days by the constant succession of exit interviews, so depending on your perspective, it’s either a cruelly inopportune joke, much-needed comic relief or a combination of both that so many people get canned in Ethan Coen’s “Offices.” Three one-act plays that offer a brisk, brutal assessment of the contemporary workplace, where paper-pushing drudgery breeds alienation and paranoia but rarely efficiency, these dark situation comedies are given tasty treatment by director Neil Pepe and an adroit, multitasking cast.
The miniplays are definitely closer in tone to the glib humor of “Burn After Reading” (the middle entry could almost be an extended riff built around J.K. Simmons’ duty-shirking CIA honcho from that film) than the soul-scraping of “Fargo” or “No Country for Old Men.” But while it’s not a whole lot more ambitious, “Offices” is more accomplished and satisfying than last year’s “Almost an Evening,” Coen’s previous triptych of existential doodles.
The new batch, presented again by the Atlantic Theater Company, benefits from a more cohesive overarching theme and a “Seinfeld”-esque knack for spinning absurdism-tinged comedy out of next to nothing. The numbing boredom, thankless bureaucracy, inane corporate-speak, underhand competition and sneaky power plays of office life are channeled into some funny, horrifyingly recognizable vignettes, peopled by characters with whom we’ve all worked. Coen draws mordant humor from the winner-loser divide and the self-loathing of the company man, with a quiet hint of melancholy in the artificial intimacy of office relationships.
Opener, “Peer Review,” will tickle anyone who has ever waded through the deadening waters of the annual employee assessment process. Habitual whiner Elliot (Joey Slotnick) is so angered by the negative evaluations of his anonymous colleagues that, one by one, he attempts to get them onboard with his outrage about a system that adopts the Eastern Bloc tradition of “informers informing on informers.” Coen undersells the punchline (a frequent flaw in his short plays), but Slotnick’s mounting hysteria is as funny as his sleepy, sexually entangled co-workers’ indifference, or the cold detachment of his unsmiling boss (F. Murray Abraham).
Second piece, “Homeland Security,” centers on government suit Munro (John Bedford Lloyd), whose absentmindedness over where he left his briefcase destabilizes both his home and office life. The almost random protocol for separating classified documents into shred, act or file stacks and the attention paid to lunch delivery amusingly indicate pervasive disengagement. But the play is most enjoyable when Munro attempts to stir the concern of his jaded wife (Mary McCann), sarcastic teenage daughter (Aya Cash) and computer-nerd preteen son (Daniel Yelsky).
Lloyd makes Munro’s flaming rant about the Internet (“It’s just a massive, swollen, deep river of crud!”) a magnificent, crazed aria. And his instant about-face as soon as parental responsibility is required to police his son’s online access supplies further droll evidence that this ill-tempered technocrat has pretty much checked out. The touch of the surreal in Munro’s fate helps make this the most robust of the three plays.
The closing item, “Struggle Session,” boasts some nutty fireworks from Abraham as a former merchant marine, now a verbose bum who gets momentarily drawn back into the workforce when he crosses paths with two freshly fired low-level execs. Daniel London brings a touching dejected quality to a guy reeling from dismissal and promotion on the same day, then thrown into turmoil when he’s accused of scaling the corporate ladder. “Climbing the ass of man?” he asks himself after being branded a lost soul by Abraham.
None of these comedies is doing anything more radically insightful than your average episode of “The Office,” and Coen appears to be cultivating an agreeable sideline rather than a significant detour from his bigscreen day job. But Atlantic a.d. Pepe has rolled the three plays into an entertaining, swiftly paced package. The laughs are steady, the characters sharply drawn and the actors all perfectly in tune with the writer’s comic sensibility.
Designer Riccardo Hernandez captures the visual anesthesia of institutional gray on gray, allowing the management perk of a cherry desk or black leather chair to pop as intimidating evidence of success. But in the warped world being depicted here, rank is always in flux and position is mostly unenviable.