F. Murray Abraham and Daniel London in Struggle Session
(© Doug Hamilton)
F. Murray Abraham and Daniel London in Struggle Session
(© Doug Hamilton)
Having scored a commercial success last season with Ethan Coen's trio of one-acts Almost an Evening, the Atlantic Theater Company has unsurprisingly staged the Oscar-winning filmmaker's sophomore attempt, Offices. And without question, this triptych of plays (which runs a total of 80 minutes) is a more accomplished and consistently amusing effort than Coen's prior work -- even if they don't linger in the mind long after one walks out the door.

While not connected in any non-thematic way, the three works all follow a kind of formula in focusing on a central character's dilemma, meandering through some quirky and often funny diversions, and then essentially petering out at the end with a gentle punchline or observation. Luckily, Neil Pepe's generally smooth and well-paced direction shows the works to their best advantage.

The curtain opener, Peer Review, concerns office drone Elliot (Joey Slotnick in consistently high dudgeon) who takes the news of his poor peer review very badly. He then goes on to annoy his seemingly sympathetic but essentially ungenial colleagues (who are caught up in the own little dramas and sexual escapades).

The middle piece -- and the evening's strongest -- is Homeland Security, in which Munro, an inept and short-tempered government bureaucrat (the excellent John Bedford Lloyd), worries more about the whereabouts of his lunch than the duties of his job (or the fate of the world). But when he mysteriously loses his briefcase, he is convinced disastrous consequences await.

The final work, Struggle Session, finds a homeless bum (played with great panache by F. Murray Abraham) suddenly recruited into corporate America by milquetoast Beck (Daniel London) after he is fired from his job and then re-hired to replace his ex-boss in record time. Once ensconced in the office, the bum (albeit now better dressed) spends all his time regaling his coworkers tales of his past sexual exploits with a female publishing magnate rather than doing any work.

Coen has little to say about the vagaries of office life that hasn't been covered in countless films and television series, but he does have a deft way with a one-liner and nice grasp of absurdity. (He also gets in a piquant shot about former Vice-President Dick Cheney that had some of the audience literally gasping.) More often than not, however, it's the laughter of recognition that rings throughout the theater.

Much of the credit for the show's success belongs to its 11-person cast, most notably Abraham (who also shines in the opener as Slotnick's hard-nosed boss). The remainder of the men -- Daniel Abeles, Brennan Brown, Greg Stuhr, CJ Wilson and Daniel Yelsky -- do well enough with the little material they've got. But it's the women who really make the most of their minimal stage time. Mary McCann earns huge laughs with her withering looks and deadpan delivery as Bob's frustrated wife Judy, while Aya Cash (one of our consistently finest young actresses) scores as both Bob and Judy's sarcastic daughter Emma and as Elliot's seemingly demure officemate Laura.

Indeed, Offices may make for some great water-cooler conversation if you go with your coworkers.