By Judd Hollander
Playwright Ethan Coen loves to study the human condition. Specifically man's foibles, follies, prejudices, preconceptions and carefully laid plans gone terribly askew. Unfortunately, sometimes Coen has a habit of leaving things unfinished. Such is the case with Happy Hour, the umbrella title of three of his one-act comedies recently presented by the Atlantic Theater Company.
The curtain-raiser, entitled End Days, begins with Hoffman (Gordon MacDonald), a disgruntled middle-aged sort, sitting on a bar stool complaining things have gone so hi-tech, it's impossible to keep up with the flow of information. So intent is Hoffman on making his point, he never lets his fellow barflies get a word in edgewise, if they're even listening to him in the first place.
Looking closely at Hoffman, it is clear he is a sort of dinosaur. He reads a newspaper instead of looking at news online and clips out articles instead of downloading them. He's also basically mad at the world, offering opinions on everything from global warming to the digital age, with assorted conspiracy theories on each. MacDonald does a nice job with the role, showing Hoffman to be at least partly at fault for his situation. The play both a cautionary tale about a person's unwillingness to change and a comic look at one individual standing alone while holding tightly to his convictions.
Second up is City Lights. Taking place in the late 1970s, it's the story of four closet dreamers each trying to find their way in a world wrought with cynicism. Ted (Joey Slotnick), a studio musician and pothead, is in major meltdown mode. Having accidentally left a demo tape of his music in a taxi cab, he finds himself trying to contact Kim (Aya Cash), the person at the "fake" phone number he gave the Cabbie (Rock Kohli), a struggling songwriter, in order to have her intercept the Cabbie's call. Kim meanwhile has just seen her relationship end, her boyfriend dumping her for being too suffocating. When Kim and the more volatile Ted meet, the two mix like fire and water. At the same time Kim's preppy friend Marci (Cassie Beck) finds herself becoming very attracted to the Cabbie, who happens to drop by after listening to Ted's tape, pronouncing it to be soulfully brilliant.
There is a tremendous amount of comic potential here, Coen doing a great job by peppering the story with funny bits throughout. Such as a stoned Ted reacting to a telephone ringing and his subsequently chowing down on a bag of Oreos; Kim's habit of eating ice cream whenever she's depressed; and the various touches by set designer Riccardo Hernandez which give life to the time period indicated. Cash is great as Kim, a woman looking for a new soul mate; Slotnick is both funny and somewhat tragic as Ted, a guy who unconsciously destroys every relationship he's in; Kohli is appealing in an earthy sort of way as the Cabbie, a working stiff with a passion for both life and music; and Beck works well as Cassie, a supporting character who offers a nice blend of realism and dreams.
Unfortunately Coen takes the play only so far, setting up all the pieces before stopping everything dead in its tracks. It's as he simply got tired of what he was writing and stopped midstream. As a result the audience is left hanging, having invested their time in these characters and then seeing everything switch off without warning.
Last up is Wayfarer's Inn, an interesting tale of Buck (Clark Gregg) and Tony (Lenny Venito), two continually traveling businessmen. Buck, one of those married fellows with a girl in every town, is happily preparing for an evening of dinner and sex via a double date he has set up for himself and Tony.
Yet Tony, tired of the same routine in every place they visit, finds himself with a crisis of faith, trying to figure out what women want, how men can make them happy and what it all means. After a somewhat existential and soul-searching discussion, Buck heads out alone to meet Gretchen (Ana Reeder) and Lucy (Amanda Quaid), the trio ending up at a Japanese restaurant, with each often on separate pages of the conversation, especially when Gretchen tells of her ex-boyfriend's encounter with a blowfish. There's also a hilarious bit featuring a perennially screaming Japanese Waitress (Susan Hyon), who keeps entering the conversations at the most importune time.
Wayfarer's Inn is meant to be a sort of wake-up call for Buck about what's important in life and what he needs to do to become a better man; a conclusion Tony has apparently already reached. Yet because Buck is not all that likeable, as well as a bit perhaps smarmy and chauvinistic, the entire scenario doesn't really work. Acting is fine throughout, even though most of the characters are pretty-much one-dimensional.
Combining various elements of black humor with pathos and longing, Coen uses these one-acts to explore some intriguing ideas about what people are like underneath their protective exteriors and how insecurities can undermine any modicum of happiness one strives to attain. However, much of what Coen presents is somewhat incomplete, leaving each work unfinished to varying degrees. With End Days and Wayfarer's Inn he pretty much has the end goal in sight but with City Lights he leaves the entire play twisting in the wind. A valiant attempt by Coen and director Neil Pepe, but each of the individual works needs some serious polishing before they see the light of day again.
End Days - Gordon MacDonald (Hoffman), Clark Gregg (Koch), Lenny Venito (Bartender), Ana Reeder (Female Voice), Rock Kohli (Slava), Joey Slotnick (Man in Parka)
City Lights - Joey Slotnick (Ted), Aya Case (Kim), Cassie Beck (Marci) Rock Kohli (Cabbie)
Inn - Clark Gregg (Buck), Lenny Venito (Tony), Susan Hyon (Japanese Waitress), Ana Reeder (Gretchen), Amanda Quaid (Lucy)
Written by Ethan Coen
Directed by Neil Pepe
Sets: Riccardo Hernandez
Costumes: Sarah Edwards
Lights: Jason Lyons
Sound: David Van Tieghem
Casting: Telsey + Company
Production Stage Manager: Alison DeSantis
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Production Manager; Michael Wade
Assistant Stage Manager: Lauren Kurinskas
Atlantic Theater Company
The Peter Norton Space
Running Time: Two Hours, 10 minutes
January 1, 2012