Peter Norton Space, New York
There might be more than a little irony on Ethan Coen’s choice of title for this collection of three short plays. The average viewer might think that “Unhappy Two Hours” would have fitted the bill more accurately.
Coen is renowned as a movie maker in association with his brother Joel. While film is obviously his thing, this is the writer’s third stage collaboration with Atlantic Theater’s Neil Pepe.
As Atlantic’s building is in the throes of a major redevelopment, they have borrowed the Peter Norton Space, usually home to Signature Theatre.
The company is best known for its work with David Mamet and judging by these plays, there is much in common between the Coen and Mamet. In particular, both tend to favour a masculine viewpoint and believe in ultra-realistic dialogue.
All three of these pieces is stronger on characterisation and speech than plot, making them look like scenes from a quirky Coen Brothers movie. They each feature protagonists whose purpose in life seems to be to pursue unhappiness unwaveringly, whatever the obstacles to its achievement.
To all intents and purposes, this is a solo show following Gordon MacDonald’s Hoffman, the kind of pub bore that could give booze a bad name.
He loves the sound of his own voice and has the skilful tenacity to ensure that interruptions are kept to a minimum.
In a series of encounters including one with a man whose unconsciousness proves no obstacle at all, he lambasts various institutions in society today, promoting fallacious beliefs regardless of their illogicality. Are staff in American drive thru restaurants really all based in Indian call centres?
As such, Hoffman can be unintentionally humorous, though perhaps his main purpose is to make us grateful that our friends and partners are not like this (unless they are).
Joey Slotnick’s maudlin session guitarist Ted is even more of an oddity than his fellows in this sequence.
We meet him during the Carter era at a time of crisis as he pursues a session tape lost in a cab.
For reasons too complicated to explain, Ted has given the wannabe composer / actual Iranian cab driver a false phone number.
The upshot is that Ted visits Aya Cash’s Kim, the owner of the phone number and there meets her friend Marci and the cab driver, respectively played by Cassie Beck and Rock Kohli.
Something rather like love begins to develop for what become two couples though whether there is any future in either oddball relationship seems dubious.
The final play might have been expected to lighten the evening and, if attempted suicide isn’t seen as too much of a downer, it does.
Things start well enough for a pair of middle-aged travelling salesmen attempting to have a night of debauchery following an authentic Japanese feast.
Clark Gregg’s Buck is as randy as his name and has no qualms about deceiving the wife. His companion, Tony played by Lenny Venito has colder feet and ducks out on a bizarre dinner.
Buck strikes lucky with two bored locals, Gretchen and Lucy respectively Ana Reeder and Amanda Quaid. However, they give him a pretty rough ride over a dinner that is interrupted by both cramp and a waitress with the kind of attitude more normally favoured by martial artists.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher