"Almost an Evening" at Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street, March 28, 2008
After a sold-out run at the Atlantic Theatre Company earlier this year, Ethan Coen's first foray into theatre has transferred for a commercial off-Broadway run.
Billed as three one-acts, Mr. Coen really seems to have staged three writing exercises as he dips his toe into writing for the stage. Given his success in film, it's not at all surprising that he is looking for a new challenge.
The first act, "Waiting" seems a bit of a riff on Pinter, where Nelson (Joey Slotnick) finds himself in a waiting room with no door and a receptionist who can speak for only the first ten minutes, but will continue typing non-stop. She does reveal that Nelson is dead and is now waiting to get into heaven. He concludes he's in purgatory. The absurdity is revealed that he must wait 822 years before he can move on. With a bureacracy only an American could understand, Nelson's wait extends from 822, to 8,022, to 28,022 years, only to find out in the end that he's already in hell and won't be getting out after visiting Mr. Shebatacheck (Jordan Lage), Mr. McMartin (Mark Linn-Baker) and Polhemus (Del Pentecost) at various points in his wait.
Oh, the reason for ending up in hell? Cursing.
The second tale is "Four Benches" with a cloak and dagger murder of Earl (Mr. Pentecost), an innocent by-stander in a dark steamroom where One (Tim Hopper), presumably a British spy was waiting to meet Mr. Potts (Bench #1). One agrees to meet Earl's father, Mr. Boodrum (J. R. Horne), feeling guilty about the death of his son (Bench #2 - "Earl was a colossus!"). One then meets with Control (F. Murray Abraham) in an attempt to leave the service (Bench #3). He successfully leaves the service and ends up back in a steam room with a Texan (Mr. Lage), yet as he attempts to tell his tale of guilt over Earl's death, it sounds more like he's broken up with a lover. I'll guess that Mr. Coen's inspiration here was Ira Levin based on the mix of mystery and a bit of black humor.
The last scene is "Debate," a debate between God Who Judges (Mr. Abraham) and God Who Loves (Mr. Linn-Baker). With heavy Mametian language (just about everyone says the "f" word, particularly Mr. Abraham), the value of a loving God is weighed against the value of a fearsome God. In a white linen robe and a flowing grey wig, Mr. Abraham is an Old Testament God, via George Carlin. The best lines of the evening are here. GWJ: "It's the Ten Commandments, not the ten f-ing suggestions." "Pierced ears? I didn't like it, but I didn't say anything. I didn't think I had to!" Mr. Linn-Baker's GWL, dressed in a Pee Wee Herman suit and bow tie, complete with pennies in his loafers, is finally pushed to his limit and shoots GWJ. It oddly turns into a play-within-a-play when Mr. Abraham goes to dinner with his Lady Friend (Johanna Day) and is spotted by a Young Man (Mr. Lage) and Young Woman (Mary McCann) who have been debating the performance and it's gender appeal, or lack thereof.
Each act is comic in its own way, with a similar dark flavor as that of Mr. Coen's movies. I found the third offering the most successful even though it strayed bizarrely in the later moments. Director Neil Pepe has done as much as he can with these sketches and certainly enhances the dark comedy with his greatly talented cast. There is no weak link to be found among them.
Ricardo Hernandez' slick set adapts well for the various scenes and is nicely enhanced by Donald Holder's lighting. Ilona Symogi's wardrobe is suitably inconspicuous.
Mr. Coen, welcome to the theatre - I hope you've enjoyed your first foray. I look forward to a a complete evening with your next effort.