Reviewed by David Spencer
There's a particular kind of joke: it's called a "shaggy dog story." There are several variations on the formula, but the common factor tends to be a long-winded, highly detailed set-up leading to a punch line that’s counter to the listener's expectations, because the punchline isn't really about the long buildup, but a sidebar detail that is suddenly thrown into high relief. The most famous one is of course The Aristocrats (look it up; and there's an entire documentary about it). Arguably the best one, for sheer courage in the telling, is Orson Bean's story about a child-eating outer space creature called The GooGoo. (It'd be useless to transcribe it here; the punch line is that fragile and depends entirely upon delivery. I've never heard anyone but Bean pull it off, though many with a good ear have tried—it's as wonderful a joke as it is impossible to tell right.)
But perhaps the best example, and maybe my favorite, is the one about the two racehorses in a bar. And it goes like this:
Two racehorses are in a bar. The first says to the second: "I was running the race at the Belmont yesterday and I just didn't care, wasn't in the competing mode. But damndest thing—as soon as I stopped worrying about it...I went into Zen mode. And it was like I had some kind of, I dunno, spiritual rocket up my ass, and I was suddenly flying. I won the race, like, half a lap ahead of everyone else."
The second horse goes, "No, you're kidding. What I mean is—that's amazing. Because the same thing happened to me last week at Aqueduct. I stopped trying to control my fate and fate took care of itself, the rocket, the flying, all of it. I won my race too."
At the end of the bar, a Greyhound pipes up. "Hey, guys, sorry to interrupt, but I couldn't help overhearing, cuz that same rocket up the butt thing happened to me at the canine races just this morning!"
The horses take this in for a moment. Then the first horse turns to the second and says: "Would you believe it? A talking dog!"
That kind of humor is both the charm and the limitation of Ethan Coen's Almost An Evening, which recently transferred from the Atlantic Theatre's smaller, experimental space to an open-ended run at the Bleecker Street Theatre.
It consists of three one-act plays:
The first is about a fellow (Joey Slotnick) seated in a waiting room, almost alone, save for a receptionist endlessly typing on an old Selectric (the anachronism goes unremarked) who finally divines that he's dead and in some kind of purgatory awaiting his final destination...which would seem to be heaven, but apparently even the afterlife has its paperwork and office functionaries, for he finds his progress impeded by a series of red tape delays that go on for…well, a long time.
The second is about a British secret service operative (Tim Hopper), for whom a terrible mistake while on assignment causes serious soul-searching about his chosen profession.
The third starts out as a podium debate between the God Who Judges ("It's the Ten Commandments, not the Ten fucking Suggestions!") (F. Murray Abraham) and the God Who Loves (Mark Linn Baker). To describe it any further—in fact, to describe any of these further—is to ruin the ride; because, as has been illustrated, a Shaggy Dog story is all about the ride.
All one can truly assess, in reviewing Almost an Evening, is whether or not the performers are funny enough for Shaggy Dog-osity, and as it happens, they are (it's an ensemble of nine, also including Jordan Lage, Mary McCann, Johanna Day, Del Pentescost and J.R. Horne). And whether or not director Neil Pepe has the pacing and timing for Shaggy Dog-osity, and, as it happens he does. And finally, whether or not Mr. Coen's Shaggy Dog stories stand the test of Shaggy Dog-osity—and in that mixed-bag way of the breed, er, I mean the genre, they do. But as with any Shaggy Dog story, you have to be into the spirit of it...
...otherwise you might as well just have a kid to feed that damn GooGoo...