Award-winning filmmaker Ethan Coen’s Almost an Evening, currently playing the Atlantic Stage Two, features such fine actors as F. Murray Abraham, Jonathan Cake, J.R. Horne, Jordan Lage, Mark Linn-Baker, Elizabeth Marvel, Mary McCann, Del Pentecost, and Joey Slotnick. Yet, despite all the talent involved, this slight program of three unrelated one-acts is only mildly amusing.
The first playlet on the program, Waiting, centers upon a man named Nelson (Slotnick) who is stuck in a waiting room, whose only other occupant is a receptionist (McCann) who lays down the ground rules, tells him how long he’s supposed to wait, and thereafter only types incessantly. After meeting with a succession of men (Lage, Linn-Baker, and Pentecost) who are supposed to clear his paperwork so that he can move forward, the truth behind his situation is finally revealed — although it’s quite obvious long before the denouement. Slotnick winningly portrays the increasingly frustrated and battered down Nelson, and Linn-Baker is quite funny as a man named McMartin who gives Nelson some unwelcome news. But the predictable piece doesn’t make much of an impression.
Second on the bill is Four Benches, which follows a British spy designated in the program as “One” (Cake) and his varying encounters on a succession of benches. The end result of his meeting with Earl (Pentecost) in a steam room alters his perspective on his job, throwing him into an existential crisis and eventually leading him to make a life-changing decision. There’s not much to the role for Cake to make meaningful, and the sketch loses momentum fairly quickly. But by placing the actor in a towel at a steam room, it does provide a droll in-joke for those that saw Cake’s juicy performance in Cymbeline, in which he was similarly clad.
The final, and most rewarding, act of the evening is Debate, which begins with “God Who Judges” (Abraham) admonishing the audience for their sins. Clothed in a flowing white robe, he is a wrathful god, and one prone to a heavy use of profanity. He shares the stage with Linn-Baker’s “God Who Loves,” a kindlier deity who presents an alternative view of the Almighty. Their debate has quite a few rib-tickling lines, not to mention a dynamite performance from Abraham. Coen then upends the scene, deconstructing what just came before in a thought-provoking and hilarious manner, particularly once Marvel takes the stage as the angry, opinionated “Lady Friend” of Abraham’s character.
Unfortunately, awkward scene transitions ruin the flow of this sketch, and seriously hamper the other two pieces in the show. Director Neil Pepe and set designer Riccardo Hernandez needed to come up with some other way to make all the scene changes called upon in the script to work. Donald Holder’s lighting also does not help to smooth things over as well as it should, particularly in Debate when actors are in place and speaking a few seconds before the lights rise on them. On the plus side, Eric Shim’s sound design does enhance the flow of the action, especially in Waiting, and Ilona Somogyl’s costumes are quite suited to the play’s various characters.
Given Coen’s track record (with brother Joel) in film — the pair are front-runners for this year’s Academy Award for No Country for Old Men — audience expectations for Almost an Evening is bound to be higher than what the playwright offers. Still, the 80-minute program is aptly titled, seeing as it doesn’t quite add up to a fulfilling night out at the theater.