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Almost An Evening

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Joey Slotnick and Mark Linn-Baker
Photo by Doug Hamilton.

The first scene in Almost an Evening, Ethan Coen's breezy trio of one-acts being presented by Atlantic Theater Company at Atlantic Stage 2, adroitly sets the tone for what's to come. A young man, good-looking, impeccably dressed, and perhaps just a mite impatient, sits in a waiting room with only out-of-date magazines for entertainment and only the relentless clicking of the mostly mute receptionist to distract him. As events unfold, it grows increasingly clear he's waiting for absolution that will never arrive.

From the halfway point of that curtain-raiser on, you'll understand exactly what he's going through. Despite a significant number of laughs, a smart production from director Neil Pepe, and one of the most ridiculously overqualified casts Off-Broadway has seen in recent memory, Almost an Evening instills you from the first second to the last that its most worthy and meaningful moments are yet to come.

The beguiling atmosphere of highly focused comedy in an otherwise fuzzy existence that Coen establishes and maintains throughout the show will hardly be foreign territory to anyone familiar with his films. In movies like Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and especially Fargo (for which he and his brother Joel won an Oscar for their best original screenplay), the worlds he's created have always resembled ours spinning at a slightly different angle, where the just-crazy-enough are not just commonplace but inevitable.

Sustaining such feelings, however, is no easy task, and Coen generally requires every frame of a two-hour film to make his points, and make them stick. In trying to cram several reels of plot into 20- and 30-minute vignettes (the entire show is over in less than an hour and a half), Coen doesn't have the opportunity he needs to provide many tenable responses to the Very Big Issue coursing through all three plays: death.

Its relationship to the first play, titled "Waiting" and starring Joey Slotnick as the put-upon Everyman Nelson, Mary McCann as the receptionist, and Jordan Lage, Mark Linn-Baker, and Del Pentecost as a series of infuriating bureaucrats, is so obvious that even Nelson figures it out after two minutes or so. (The specifics, however, take longer for him to unravel.) In the following "Four Benches," a British secret agent (Jonathan Cake) unwittingly involves a Texan titan in his schemes, and becomes wracked with guilt.

F. Murray Abraham and Mark Linn-Baker
Photo by Doug Hamilton.

The last and longest scene, "Debate," functions as a dual-edged parody, of both haughtily self-important theatre and of Almost an Evening's own mock pretensions. A spirited discussion of the nature of sin between two visions of God, one vengeful (F. Murray Abraham) and one loving (Linn-Baker), transforms into an acidic treatise on theatrical meaninglessness when it becomes a cavalier, murder-suicide romp through the dregs of Off-Off-Broadway, in which no opinion is naturally sacred or to be taken at face value.

Coen never condescends to religion in "Debate," but spares no blows for those who explore, challenge, or belittle it without considering the implications. Unfortunately, Coen is more or less guilty of this as well, never elevating his potentially hilarious premise to the comic heights a more detailed work might reach. It's the funniest of the three scenes only because it's the most overtly outrageous, and there's something irresistible about watching the preternaturally prim Abraham, decked out in long silver dresses, rant about nipple piercing before assailing his good-natured counterpart with swift kicks to the posterior.

But just as audience members watching Abraham and Linn-Baker 's play-within-a-play can't agree on the piece's meaning or the characters' motivations, the laughs of the segment are too inconclusive to carry any particular weight. The same is true of the rest of the show: The single joke driving "Waiting" is an ancient one, while "Four Benches" barely has jokes at all - it serves as a contemplatively charming centerpiece that seems intended to reveal the other scenes as shallow treatments of weighty topics, but instead diverts attention from their sharper stories.

What stands out instead are Pepe's quicksilver production, which provides more breathlessness than Coen's writing manages, and the nine expert performers who can make mountains out of their molehill-sized roles. Slotnick's disintegrating Nelson, McCann's curt typist in the first scene and argumentative date in the third, Elizabeth Marvel's bracing girlfriend of God and determined woman with a baby carriage, and Cake's self-absorbed git of a waiter in "Debate" are among the finer portraits painted, but each is memorable both for what they accomplish with so little and how much more you're missing from such a gifted company.

Stick with them long enough, though, and you'll see everything they and Coen have to offer in this enjoyable-enough puzzle of an evening. It's just that the last piece, crucial in identifying the final picture, is nowhere to be found. If this makes for a disappointing cap to Almost an Evening, at least there's no question that the title is a chillingly accurate indicator of what you'll get.

Almost An Evening
Through February 10
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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