Don't misunderstand: This time around, that's as good a thing as it can be given the subject matter. Unlike with his previous two one-act-trilogy assemblages for the Atlantic, Almost an Evening and Offices (both of which were directed, as is this one, by Neil Pepe), Coen establishes and maintains a unified theme and mood that lets all three of the playlets feel like they belong together. So even when they're unevenly written — which, true to Coen's theatrical form, they certainly are — you're witnessing a complete, structured drama that doesn't willingly let you out of its grip.
The pressure it exerts, as you may have guessed, is not of the immediately uplifting variety. Each script focuses on a different facet of human dissatisfaction and alienation, and posits that not only do these conditions have no easy solutions, they likely don't have direct solutions at all. Characters in all three plays are searching for fulfillment they can't identify, and spreading their hollow confusion to the friends, lovers, and (of course) strangers who wander into their dark spheres.
This is most obvious in the curtain raiser, "End Days," the only one of the plays that takes place even partially in a bar. (Riccardo Hernandez's sets easily swivel and slide to reveal a host of intimate locales.) Hoffman (Gordon MacDonald) will relate his story of people laying waste to the planet to anyone who will hear it. "We are racing up to this snapping point where everyone realizes ohmygod, ohmygod, and then there's the global contraction," he babbles while the bartender and other patrons look on, nearly comatose. "Triggered by the sound of a billion sphincters snapping shut."
Hoffman has opinions about everything, from global warming to fossil fuels to international business to a new Jewish holocaust, and so slurs them all together that you marvel at how he can keep track of each new conspiracy. But Hoffman is himself a victim of the media-induced hysteria he decries: He obsessively clips and scrapbooks newspaper stories about the latest global calamities, and lives behind a door that padlocks no fewer than four times. He's technically married, but his wife is reduced to a voice shouting vague pleasantries from the other room while he immerses himself in "current events."
That's more than may be said about the second entry, "City Lights," which examines what happens to a man who closes himself off even more. Ted (Joey Slotnick) is a musician who rarely leaves his apartment, but is forced into interpersonal contact after leaving something important in the backseat of a cab. Small talk with the driver led to the exchanging of phone numbers, and Ted, riddled with guilt about the made-up number he gave, dials it (this is the late 1970s) to explain what's coming.
Kim (Aya Cash) is on the other end, and she's a school teacher with a resolutely positive outlook to contrast Ted's fatalism. When the two meet and try to convert each other, sparks fly — but not necessarily the good kind. She's tender from a recent breakup and he's a confirmed introvert, which would suggest potential for some juicy conflict, but Coen never figures out what it should be. Slotnick and Cash are respectively committed to the angst and positivity of their roles, and Cassie Beck and Rock Kohli provide fine support as Kim's seize-the-day roommate and the enterprising cab driver, but the dearth of emphatic feelings and too little action prevent "City Lights" from being illuminating.
Tony gets it, but not until Buck has had his uproarious dinner with Gretchen (Ana Reeder) and Lucy (Amanda Quaid), who unwittingly tap into the existential conundrums so vexing Tony. Gretchen dumped her boyfriend in Costa Rica for a hard-bodied diving instructor who told her a tall tale about getting trapped inside a blowfish, but which seems to hold all the answers to everything. As she relates the diver's theory and Buck breaks it down afterwards, with continuous interruptions by the incomprehensible Japanese waitress who's trying to serve them (Susan Hyon), the hilarity of the three-way miscommunication demonstrates how elusive a satisfying, believable reality is for everyone.
Coen's casual comedy, Pepe's gritty direction, and the off-the-cuff performances (Gregg is particularly Seinfeldian here, with Reeder and Quaid excellent straight women for him) united and delight most effortlessly here. What exactly any of this means, and what fates will yet befall Buck and Tony, are left unexplained. But their plight is the cathartic culmination of a fascinating series of questions that assess the value of being an active participant in the saga of living. Individual moments may depress, but taken together they may point to a vivifying hopefulness that make all of life's less-than-happy hours worth the struggle.