After making a promising playwriting debut with last season’s highly amusing Almost an Evening, Oscar-winning screenwriter-director Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Fargo) returns to Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater with another trio of playlets — Offices. Again, he’s smartly enlisted the services of director Neil Pepe (late of Broadway’s Speed-the-Plow), and brought back actors Joey Slotnick (the prototype for a Dilbert-style cubicle drone), Mary McCann (who boasts perhaps the best — and most underrated — deadpan skills in the biz), and F. Murray Abraham (last time, he played a ranting, raving, foul-mouthed God; here, he’s a ranting, raving, foul-mouthed homeless man). But if Coen’s first work was Almost an Evening, Offices could be called Even Less of an Evening.
The only thing these short plays share is the nagging sense that we never really know anyone’s actual occupation. That can be a tantalizing prospect, particularly when we suspect it’s something salacious — as in the curtain-raiser, ”Peer Review.” But aside from an absolutely brilliant, entirely wordless water-cooler humiliation scene, there’s no enjoyment to be found in — or sense to be made of — the disgruntled Elliot (Slotnick) waxing on about ”East Germany” and ”Hitler” and ”brainwashing” and ”police informers” and ”stock options.”
The second piece, ”Homeland Security,” simply feels stale: An absentminded government official (John Bedford Lloyd) is more distressed over his long-delayed lunch than with his missing document-filled briefcase — gosh, he seems familiar. And the Dick Cheney joke (told not once, but twice!) seems so 2006.
The final entry, ”Struggle Session,” starts off looking timely — two guys get the corporate heave-ho — but we’re not witnessing layoffs or belt-tightening. That’s clear when the underling (Daniel London) gets re-hired. On the street. While he’s talking to a bum (played by Abraham). We suspect said bum will dispense dollops of wisdom, or, at the very least, tell colorful tales. But all Coen provides is an extended anecdote about a mysterious sexual position (”gives enormous pleasure to the broad,” we learn) that’s unfunny on first description and positively torturous by the third — despite Abraham’s best, blustery efforts.
These flaws wouldn’t necessarily be fatal if any of the three plays actually contained a fully drawn character or a viable story line. But we only get sketches and snippets. I still suspect that Coen has a good black comedy in him, even a full-length one. Why, then, did he sell himself so short with Offices? C?
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