Aya Cash and Joey Slotnick
in Happy Hour
(© Kevin Thomas Garcia)
Aya Cash and Joey Slotnick
in Happy Hour
(© Kevin Thomas Garcia)
Ethan Coen's ironically titled trio of one-acts, Happy Hour, now being presented by the Altantic Theater Company at the Peter Norton Space, offers glimpses into the lives of a paranoid news junkie, misanthropic struggling musician, and philandering business man with anger issues. A more accurate title for this mixed-bag of work, directed by Neil Pepe, might be The Anger Plays.

"End Days" opens the show with a couple guys sitting on bar stools, but it's essentially a monologue -- or more accurately a rant. Words rapidly spill out of Hoffman's mouth (Gordon MacDonald) landing on the deaf ears of several unsuspecting barflies, his neglected wife (Ana Reeder, heard off stage), and even the audience.

For example, Hoffman shares his concerns of living in an increasingly digital age where, for example, mechanical parking meters have been replaced by digital ones. "See the one is a part of the world, shares all its reality, and the other, the new thing, that one has modeled the world somehow. But it's fake. One's a parking meter, the other's a mock-up of a parking meter. A simulacrum."

It's one of many curious ideas Coen throws around, but they get lost in MacDonald's rapid-fire monotone delivery, which renders Hoffman a one-note nut who's easy to dismiss. This is confounded by some awkward stage business and a running gag of Hoffman always struggling to open his apartment door. It disrupts the rhythm of the words, setting a discordant timing that unfortunately pops up intermittently through the night.

"City Lights" is the lightest, snappiest, and ultimately, most successful of the three playlets. A period piece set in the late 1970s, it opens with Ted (Joey Slotnick), a misanthropic session musician, who is scrambling to get a demo tape back that he left in a cab. The Cabbie (Rock Kohli) is, as fate would have it, also an aspiring musician who feels a kinship with Ted and sees past his misery to something more hopeful buried within.

The two men cross paths with a pair of women, Kim (Aya Cash) and Marci (Cassie Beck), who fall for Ted and Cabbie respectively. The broad humor of the piece lands particularly well, feeling at its best like a madhouse version of Noises Off, but the darker moments feel unfinished and resonate only hollowly.

The final piece, "Wayfarer's Inn," is also the longest, occupying the entire second act. The title refers to the crappy motel two businessmen, Buck (Clark Gregg) and Tony (Lenny Venito), are stuck staying in on a trip to Anytown, USA. The non-descript nature of the piece makes it drag through way too many monologues, but it's somewhat saved by Gregg who gives a spot-on performance as a womanizer whose anger management issues get in the way of his scoring.

One of the best scenes comes when at a painfully authentic Japanese restaurant where the waiters scream at customers in their native tongue and force them to eat the chef's eccentric creations, Buck catches himself arguing with a girl he wants to sleep with and the harder he tries to smooth the conversation over, the worse it gets. These kinds of moments come not from Coen's cleverly sardonic dialogue but the beats in-between when he allows his characters to breathe and glimpse the mess around them.