by Ethan Coen
Directed by Neil Pepe
A Production of the Atlantic Theatre
at the Peter Norton Space, West 42nd Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

Ethan Coen reminds me, oddly, or maybe not-so-oddly, of speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison. So far, in his playwright mode, he steadfastly refuses to work longform (I’m bypassing the screenplays he has co-authored with brother Joel as something else altogether; when Ellison was active, he was likewise a screenwriter, but primarily, as with his short stories, in the “short form” of episodic television). Coen’s focus, his specialty, his comfort zone, perhaps even the extent of his theatrical reach (?)—and nothing wrong if so, art’s only true barometer being the art itself—is the one act play; actually the one act comedy, usually of the dark variety, albeit dark-zany, as opposed to dark-and-not-really-funny. But now that we’re being served his third full evening of them (the previous were Almost an Evening and Offices), not to mention the one-off that comprises a third of Relatively Speaking, currently on Broadway, a thematic obsession cannot help but be identified. And that is the thematic obsessions of his characters’ lives, which, in Coen’s view, constrains them in an emotional paralysis from which they are incapable of escaping. Coen’s characters do not change, they just become more refined and, in the sense of cooking, reduced and concentrated versions of what they were when we met them.

                        This is not so distracting or even depressing when Coen’s backdrops or premises offer his characters institutional challenges (office politics, government bureaucracy) to work against, or goal-objectives to work toward (such as in Talking Cure, the curtain-raiser for Broadway’s Relatively Speaking, in which a prison psychologist tries to guide a brutish but cleverly evasive patient toward a breakthrough of self-realization). But in the ironically-titled Happy Hour, the characters aren’t struggling with anything much except their own demons within the context of social interaction. Subsequently we spend what often seems a disproportionate time listening to them rationalize their philosophical stances, to themselves and each other, without even slender plot to sustain involved interest via dramatic tension (as opposed to the less dynamic interest of simply not being bored). To wit:

                        In End Days, a white collar guy (Gordon MacDonald) goes to a bar every night and rants on a favorite subject—that too much immediately available electronic information is destroying life as we know it—to anyone who’ll sit still for it. Then he goes home, pretty much ignores his offstage wife who's waiting in bed for him, sits down with that day’s paper, mutters furiously, cuts out some article that seems to support his thesis, places it in a scrapbook, and repeats the same pattern the next day.

                        In City Lights, which seems to be tacitly set in the 1980s (a key prop in the story is an audio cassette tape), a solitary studio musician (Joey Slotnik) who lives a life of dedicated, miserable loneliness is, through a convoluted series of encounters, presented with the opportunity of a true relationship (in the person of a naïvely sensitive schoolteacher played by Aya Cash), and retreats from it in angry panic.

                        Those first two one acts comprise the first half of the evening, and when we hit intermission the audience is clearly left rather cold. My companion commented that Coen’s characters all occupy a little box of self-absorption that they can’t get out of, and that Coen, further, seemed to be positing that this is the inevitable human experience. Which made the third play a little bit of a surprise.

                        In Wayfarer’s Inn, a philandering husband, Buck (Clark Gregg), and his best buddy, Tony (Lenny Venito), have just taken up residence in a hotel room to prepare for a night of dinner and sex with “other” women. Buck has done this often before, the women in this town are previous conquests, and though the planned sexual encounter will not enrich his life, he refuses to acknowledge a certain pointlessness in the elaborate social ritual of getting there. Said pointlessness raised as a possibility by an apologetically introspective Tony, who starts to feel as if maybe he shouldn’t go out tonight. (Tony’s philosophical musing was almost an exact echo of my companion’s thoughts about the first two plays, which made this third play much more absorbing, because Coen was coming right out and articulating the game [albeit in a side-door way]; and since this observation is made early in the play, you had to wonder where he would go with it.) To summarize what follows is to spoil, but Coen does spin this much of a variation: while the characters never change—including the aforementioned women (Ana Reeder, Amanda Quaid) and even a non-English speaking Japanese waitress (Susan Hyon)—each confronts an outcome to the evening that none expects, with Buck in particular shaken enough to turn contemplative.

                   Additionally, though there are individual performances that are admirable, the cast, as an ensemble, seems constrained by the narrowness of the worldview; this is reflected in the direction of Neil Pepe, and his design team's efforts—which are entirely professional, entirely appropriate and yet drab. Which may not be their fault. It may simply be the nature of the recalcitrant beast.

               In all, Happy Hour is the weakest of Coen’s three one-act compilations, and it’s the one that’s a little disheartening, because it makes you wonder if he’s used up all the colors on his palette; because he seems to be “adding water” to extend them in diluted form. One can only hope that the evening’s thesis is not a fatalistic summation of his theatrical future. I’d hate for him to have lost access to the deft, deceptively zany energy that brought him acclaim in the first place…

             (Important note: Though Happy Hour is presented by Mr. Coen’s usual supporter, the Atlantic Theatre, it resides in an unusual venue for them, the Peter Norton Space way West on 42nd Street [usually home to the Signature Theatre], due to construction and renovation at the home turf. Don’t make the mistake of showing up at the 20th Street digs.)

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