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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

C.J. Wilson, Aya Cash, Daniel Abeles, and Joey Slotnick in "Peer Review"
Photo by Doug Hamilton.

If work were always as much fun as Offices, the new giggle factory of an evening by Ethan Coen that just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company, the trudge from graduation to retirement would pass in a blink. That's more of an achievement than you might suspect. Not because Coen, who with his brother Joel has written distinctive film comedies like Fargo (for which they won an Oscar), The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but because he's done so here about a subject that's seldom a laughing matter: politics.

If you're still weary from our own recent presidential contest, don't worry: There are no campaigns or elections at stake in this heady trio of laugh-riddled playlets. There don't have to be. Coen has, for the most part, focused instead on schmoozers and shakers who occupy less-influential seats of power. The curtain-raiser, "Peer Review," concerns straight-on office politics; "Homeland Security," which is set inÂ… well, you can probably guess, is consumed with the somewhat more twisted politics of conspiracy; and "Struggle Session" warns about the dangers of social politics in the tipsiest, most anything-goes way imaginable.

But even if you've never held an office job or you'd prefer to forget the one you have, there's nothing daunting in Coen's scenarios. They've been conceived and arranged as smart sketches that draw on corporate or civil-service drudgery, but are tied to even more elemental concerns and prejudices. Who hasn't felt at some point that their coworkers couldn't wait for them to leave the room to start the acidic gossiping? Or been overwhelmed by everything unknowable that's necessary knowledge for your daily routine? Or done a good deed that certainly didn't go unpunished?

This real-world familiarity, combined with Coen's twinkle and the red-hot leisurely pace of Pepe's production, ensures that you'll never be mired in the sense that everyone is building to a joke you won't get. That was the problem Coen's playwriting debut last year, Almost an Evening (also produced by the Atlantic): It had decent plots and a sublime cast, but no ultimate point, and its vague connecting thread of mortality and the afterlife wasn't enough to allow its three individual stories to either stand on their own or bolster the others.

F. Murray Abraham and Daniel London in "Struggle Session
Photo by Doug Hamilton.

That never happens here. Coen's exploration of a deceptively myopic company evaluation policy in "Peer Review," which drives an ostensibly mild-mannered drone (Joey Slotnick) insane with obsession and then out of the company, predicts the paranoia that infuses "Homeland Security." That scene's lead character, Munro (John Bedford Lloyd), a jittery middle-management secret keeper, is sworn to protect against the minuscule intelligence breaches that actions like those in "Struggle Session" could produce. There, a fired employee (Daniel London), is rehired and promoted, seeing fit to take on the literal bum (F. Murray Abraham) who's become his spiritual, professional, and sexual advisor.

None of this, obviously, is to be taken seriously. But because it all taps into our natural fears of bureaucracies we can't seen and don't understand, whether in the government or private sector, Offices has a weight and urgency that make its fluorescent flights of fancy fiercely funny, but prevent it from being strictly light fare. This is most evident in the second and sharpest piece, with Munro sorting vital documents into interchangeable piles called "Act," "File," and "Shred,"; searching for his potentially classified briefcase; or confusing the Undersecretary with the lunch-delivery guy. But it's a simmering undercurrent throughout.

Even Riccardo Hernandez's modular office set seems more like a suit-and-tie-styled zoo cage than it does a workplace-comedy set; it also helps that David Weiner has lit it with just the right note of oppressive squalor. And the crackerjack cast romping about inside is excellent: Lloyd is a particular standout as the always-on-the-edge Munro, delivering his trust-no-one lines and speeches (including a hilarious one about the "massive, swollen, deep river of crud" that is the Internet) with the taut intensity of a time bomb. Abraham and Slotnick (two holdovers from Almost an Evening) are highly convincing as very different kinds of losers, and Atlantic member Mary McCann gives the most serene performance as Munro's watching-from-the-sidelines wife.

There's one caveat to the considerable pleasures on offer here. Astute as Coen is at identifying the personalities and situations to be found at any job, he's still not a master of the short form. Although these shows are clearer and more concise than last year's, Coen still displays an underdeveloped ability to realize multiple stories in 90 minutes onstage with the same facility he does one in the same amount of time onscreen. He's great at devising and developing premises, but not at preventing them from petering out in their waning moments, as if in expectation of a final reel that will never arrive.

One hopes that, if Coen is to continue delivering three short plays to the Atlantic every year - which he should - this is a skill he will build and burnish. But if Offices leaves you just the tiniest bit unsatisfied, the banquet of laughs it serves you along the way is almost enough to make you not mind missing out on dessert.

Through June 7
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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