20 December 2011

'Happy Hour'

Back on the live performance beat since my last outing in mid-October, my usual theater companion, Diana, and I went to Theatre Row to catch the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Happy Hour by Ethan Coen. Like Dreams of Flying . . ., our last ATC show (see my report on ROT, 6 November), this production is being presented in borrowed digs while the Chelsea home of ATC is under renovation, so we were back in familiar territory on Friday night, 9 December: far-West 42nd Street, the Peter Norton Space formerly occupied by the Signature Theatre Company. (Coincidentally, Diana and I’ll be seeing our first two Signature productions in their new complex a block east after the New Year, a Fugard in February and an Albee in March. Reports will be forthcoming.) Happy Hour, in its world première staged by ATC artistic director Neil Pepe, is a collection of three one-acts by Coen, a trilogy of bleak glimpses at human behavior with an ironic title. As the ATC press release puts it: “Your life could be worse—and these three one-act comedies show you how.” Another way to put Coen’s dramatic philosophy: Life sucks, and then bad things happen.

Coen is probably better known as half, with his brother Joel, of the Coen brothers film team. (The two writer-directors have won four Academy Awards, two for writing: Fargo, 1996, and No Country for Old Men, 2007.) Ethan Coen made his Off-Broadway stage début at ATC with the world première of Almost an Evening in 2008, followed the next year by the world premiere at ATC of Offices. Both productions, also bills of one-act plays, were directed by Pepe. Coen’s Broadway début is his one-act contribution, Talking Cure, in the current three-play bill at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre entitled Relatively Speaking that also includes comedies by Elaine May (George is Dead) and Woody Allen (Honeymoon Motel), directed by John Turturro. (Besides making 15 films with his brother, Coen has published a book of short stories, Gates of Eden, 1998, and in 2001, another of poetry, The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way.)

I don’t usually start my play reports by quoting reviews, but it’ll be easier to get in to this one by mentioning what Elisabeth Vincentelli concluded about Happy Hour first. In the New York Post, she bluntly states, “Ethan Coen’s new show may be titled ‘Happy Hour,’ but by the time it finally ends, you may have renamed it ‘Two Miserable Hours I’ll Never Get Back.’” (I won’t do a survey of press responses yet, but I’ll précis the general reception. Nearly all publications agreed that it was a bleak evening of little depth.) I start here because I want to say that I can’t be quite that dismissive or absolute. While there was a great deal wrong with the plays, both individually and together, there were moments of, not insight but cleverness, and some scenes, especially one, had definite dramatic vitality. That said, I can’t say Happy Hour ended up amounting to much as an evening in the theater. Let’s see why.

First, let me address the production and the stage work. Irrespective of the writing, the acting at ATC is uniformly excellent in Happy Hour. (In fact, over the years of seeing plays at ATC, though I’ve been disappointed in the material selected, I’ve never found the performing less than good. The same’s true of the directing with only the most occasional reservations, usually with regard to choices rather than execution.) The problem with the performances, especially among the lead characters in each play, is that they are almost all single notes—but that’s the way they’re written and Neil Pepe either couldn’t or wouldn’t find any variations in the characters to prevent the actors from seeming repetitive. Without reading the scripts I can’t be certain, but I don’t think there’s much Pepe could have done on this score. The result, unhappily, is that that the characters all end up being set-ups, little ideograms that Coen came up with to represent his concepts, but not real people. They’re wind-up dolls, most of them set at high volume. (Everyone seems to shout a lot, even when they aren’t arguing with one another, which is pretty often.) What’s more, as several published reviewers remark, the characters aren’t people you’d want to spend any time with. (In the Village Voice, James Hannaham warns that “the protagonists will make you reach for your pepper spray.”) Marilyn Stasio in Variety calls the acting “lugubrious,” but I’m sure she’s referring to the style, not the technique.

I’ve already remarked on Pepe’s direction, at least with respect to the actors. He restricted himself severely as far as blocking goes because of the set design (by Riccardo Hernandez). The Peter Norton stage is shallow but fairly wide; however, Pepe and Hernandez divided the space with partial walls and curtains so that each scene only uses half or less of the lateral space. Add even a small piece of furniture, and the room for actors to do any moving aside from shifting from one bed to the other in a motel room is minimal. This makes for cramped visual pictures and a static stage. As pinched as Coen's outlook is thematically, this makes the production even more stagnant.

It’s worth noting at this point that Coen’s tactic here of composing these short plays—the first two, comprising the first act of the bill, are about 40 minutes each; the last is 45 minutes—in multiple scenes, though a simple matter in cinema, is criticized by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times for becoming “a laborious business in live theater.” That’s one of the several critical remarks with which I completely agree. Worse, some of the tiny scenes seem dramatically unnecessary, attenuating not only the playing time (two hours, 10 minutes, with a 10-minute intermission) but also the dramatic arc, such as it is. There’s no appreciable set shifting between scenes (just between the playlets), but a few seconds or a minute of semi-darkness is always necessary for actors to cross backstage, during which there’s (loud and, to my ear, irrelevant) pop music playing to cover the change. What on screen would have been an instant cross-fade or blackout is here just dead air.

Hernandez’s set, a unit background of an essentially plain wall with movable panels and a couple of practical doors, is mostly bare and characterless. The rest of each set is made up of selected furniture: a wooden bar with stools for the main set of End Days with a chair and lamp table for the secondary scenes; the one-room apartment of a musician and the living room of the slightly better established young teacher in City Lights; and two twin beds with a night table of a cheap motel room and the private dining area of an “authentic” Japanese restaurant for Wayfarer’s Inn. Panels swing out from the back wall, painted institutional green, or red curtains fly in (for the Japanese restaurant), separating the settings and carving up the stage into small playing areas. Decoration is limited to a lighted beer ad in the bar of End Days and the standard motel art print over the beds in Wayfarer’s Inn. I have to assume that this is all done by choice (rather than bad taste) and that Pepe and Hernandez are continuing Coen’s bleak dramaturgical outlook in the scenic design. It looks, however, like an incomplete design or one that was built with an inadequate budget. (I can’t help remembering that Signature’s Angels in America, staged in the same theater—see my ROT report, 11 December 2010—used multiple sets on stage at the same time to much greater benefit.) Of Hernandez’s design in Happy Hour, Marilyn Stasio states bluntly in Variety, “The sets are dismal . . . .”

Now let’s look at the material all this work was intended to support: Coen’s playwriting. I haven’t seen the other examples of his theater work (and I’m not a great fan of his and his brother’s movies), so I don’t have a lot to compare with. I gather from the published reviews that this set of one-acts is not dissimilar from his other plays—except perhaps nastier. (The tone of Happy Hour, apparently, bears a resemblance to his film scripts, although some critics say that Joel Coen acts as a mollifier to brother Ethan’s excesses and that their directing provides a dynamic that doesn’t appear in Ethan’s solo stage work directed by other artists. However, I have insufficient experience of the work to provide me that insight, if it’s even relevant at all.) Since this is only Coen’s third foray into stage writing (plus a single one-act as part of the Broadway trilogy), maybe what we’re witnessing is a playwright just emerging from his screenwriting cocoon but not yet fully developed into a stage-writing butterfly. He’s obviously still using film technique in his plot developments, with the multiple, short (in some cases, very short) scenes. The fact that he’s still composing one-act plays also suggests (but certainly doesn’t prove) that Coen’s not entirely secure as a playwright yet, unable, maybe, to commit to a longer form that requires a surer structure and narrative, plus more complete character development. Snapshots are easier to make than full-fledged art photographs—though some great playwrights have written some wonderful one-act plays (Shaw, Chekhov, Molière, Yeats, Tennessee Williams, among many others). Since Coen’s not a novice writer, he demonstrates skill with words, and some of the dialogue in Happy Hour is both pointed and very funny. (A line about how global warming in Switzerland has reduced an Alpine glacier to “just a little yarmulke at the very top of the mountain” is the best example.) He can also tell a story, as one scene in the last play proves. Variety’s Stasio believes Coen “desperately needs a dramaturg, or an editor” and I agree to an extent: an editor would help pare away the excess verbiage and tighten the dialogue, but a dramaturg (a function with which Stasio has had some experience) might also help Coen flesh out the characters and find the structure that would help turn the situations into small, complete dramas.

On the other hand, many a good and even great writer of other forms has run aground on the shores of theater, including Mark Twain and Joyce Carol Oates. Some years ago, the American Place Theatre launched a program in which they invited accomplished writers of prose or poetry to try their hands at playwriting. Very few of the efforts went beyond an early draft and none were truly successful. The conclusion of the theater’s literary staff was that playwriting is just so different and difficult that even the best writers in other genres can’t succeed just by deciding to turn their minds to the stage. It’s just a different skill and talent. Coen could be among that element, too, of course.

It also must be considered, however, that Ethan Coen may have another problem, too—one that isn’t so easily dismissed as an unpracticed playwriting hand. Look at what he chooses to say in his plays. The Coen brothers’ movies are often chilly and depict characters who are unlikeable or unsympathetic—and that’s when Ethan Coen collaborates with his brother, said to be a modifying influence. Happy Hour portrays a gallery of losers, unhappy souls, borderline manics without a redeeming character trait. In the plays, they’re all in extremis so we get the full blast of their soul-devouring personalities and defense mechanisms. All but one character in Happy Hour has any sense of her or his own self-destructive drive (and that one exception attempts suicide alone in a cheap motel room). Leaving aside how well Coen handles his malaise, how well he depicts it on stage, it’s an unrelieved desolation that makes for a bleak evening in the theater. (Vincentelli’s New York Post notice bears the headline “You’ll need a drink after this ‘Happy Hour’” and ends with the wish that “perhaps this ‘Happy Hour’ could offer the audience two Prozacs for the price of one.”)

But looking at the manner in which Coen engages his demonstrably icy view of man- (which is to say, ‘male’) kind—his women are slightly less depressing and miserable (though only slightly)—there’s reason to fear that the playwright’s not so much on the up-slope of his playwriting career, but on plateau. Two Neils have made theater about the hapless, disappointed, or badly-behaving zhlub—LaBute, who’s the grittier and darker, and Simon, of an earlier generation whose outlook was sunnier and, I should stress, funnier. LaBute’s still finding his stage legs to a degree (and he’s not always appealing, either), and Simon left the gag-peddler behind in his later plays, but both writers had greater depth and stronger craft behind their dim view of humanity. (It’s not altogether fair or accurate to say that Neil Simon had a dim view of humanity—just of human existence in the world as we knew it in the middle of the last century.) Coen’s plays are one-note diatribes, laced with Mametesque obscenities (but without Mamet’s lyricism), with one-dimensional characters who, once you get their tune, become entirely predictable and repetitive. You know exactly where things are heading. The lines and gags can sometimes be clever and even surprising, but the points they make aren’t startling or new. There’s simply no meat on the plays’ bones. And just to exacerbate the dramatic disappointment, Coen’s plays don’t actually end. They just stop. Actually, they just trail off . . . . (In Back Stage, David Sheward writes that Coen “gives us three screams of pain and fails to develop them beyond the initial anguished syllables.”) There’s no finish, no final point, and no one learns anything. That may be Coen’s idea of a thematic conclusion, but it’s frustrating to me. As Marilyn Stasio concludes in Variety, “Coen's world view is dyspeptic to say the least, but the last thing any play about alienation needs is an alienating production.” She’s writing about director Pepe’s contribution, but I put the problem at the feet of the playwright.

The curtain raiser is End Days, essentially a running screed by an angry boozehound in a bar (possibly the “Happy Hour” of the umbrella title). Hoffman (Gordon MacDonald) is monumentally pissed about what the world around him has become, and he blames technology—all those cell phone calls and microwave communications—and just about everything else we’ve heard people bitch about for decades (“serious social shit”). (Among other sources, Coen seems to have been channeling the Occupy movement around the country.) It’s not that his complaints don’t have the ring of truth—or rationality—or that his ideas are crackpot. It’s that he’s a crashing, drunken, unstoppable bore, and as hard as MacDonald works, with obvious skill and talent—the actor delivers the tirades with considerable intelligence—there’s nothing he can do to make this guy a palatable companion or compelling stage figure. There’s a bartender (Lenny Venito) who never speaks and a couple of fellow patrons, Koch in the first bar scene (Clark Gregg) and Slava in the second (Rock Kohli). Koch gets a few questions out, mostly to provoke Hoffman to another rant; Slava (who may not even speak English) is passed out on the bar the whole time anyway. Between the two bar scenes, Hoffman goes home where he sits in an armchair with his newspaper and a pair of scissors and clips articles that obviously support his pessimistic opinions of society and which he files away in a box he keeps under the chair. (He always has trouble opening his apartment door, and once his unseen wife calls to him from the off-stage bedroom—but Hoffman says little in these scenes, one of which has no dialogue and lasts all of 10 seconds. It’s these scenes I found unnecessary, especially considering how much extra production effort they add.) Despite being divided into two settings (and four scenes), the play is sedentary: Hoffman goes from sitting on a bar stool to sitting in his living room chair and back (and back again). So much for “movement.” (Hoffman’s fighting to get his key out of the door lock is the only action in the playlet.) Like the plays to follow, End Days has no . . . well, end. Hoffman, et al., are apparently caught in a feedback loop and will repeat the cycle over and over, like a nihilistic take on Groundhog Day. Now that’s a horrifying prospect.

Ironically, the second play of the evening, City Lights, might not have occurred had there been cell phones when it’s set, the mid-to-late 1970s (the Carter administration). Ted (Joey Slotnick) is a lonely guy, a session guitarist of whom even he freely admits no one has ever heard. On a cab ride home from a gig, laden with half a dozen instruments, he leaves something vital in the cab. The cabbie (Kohli) was chatty—and a would-be songwriter—and tried to get the antisocial Ted into a conversation, musician to musician. To put him off, Ted gives the driver a phony telephone number, deliberately reversing two digits of his own number. When the guitarist gets to his one-room walkup and realizes he’s left something behind, he frantically calls the number he gave the cabbie. We first hear the nearly-Kafkaesque explanation from Ted’s end, then from the receiver’s end. (The two sets are side by side.) She’s a first-grade teacher, Kim (Aya Cash), who’s just broken up with her boyfriend, lonely and insecure. Ted arrives to wait for the call from the cabbie he hopes will come and Kim, who can’t stand cursing, and her more self-assured friend Marci (Cassie Beck) listen to Ted’s ranting. Mismatched though they are, it’s clear that Kim and Ted are meant to get together, despite Marci’s cautions. Cash’s little-girl optimism—she’s even dressed in braids and a pinafore (costumes are by Sarah Edwards)—is a complement to Slotnick’s vulgarity-laden (he just can’t help himself) anger and defensiveness. (Slotnick bears a vague resemblance to Coen himself, a complete accident of casting I’m sure—though all Coen’s male leads seem to be avatars of himself. Coen, by the way, vaguely resembles a scruffy, red-bearded Hugh Laurie.) Meanwhile, the cab driver shows up at Ted’s place, lets himself in (don’t ask how he got into the apartment), finds no one home, and leaves a plastic bag with the mysterious lost item (a classic McGuffin, by the way). As Ted returns home to find his treasure—it turns out to be a demo tape of a country ballad of surpassing sensitivity which I suspect no one will ever hear—the driver turns up at Kim’s. (How he found her name and address—remember, there’s no Internet for tracing phone numbers to addresses—we never learn.) He felt a kinship with Ted, despite the musician’s obvious attempts to cold-shoulder him, and he defends Ted to Marci as Kim picks up on the good qualities the cabbie attributes to the angry guitarist. Of course, Marci, so leery of Ted, almost immediately jumps the cabbie’s bones on Kim’s living room couch, sending Kim fleeing the apartment in embarrassment—and she goes straight to Ted’s (having gotten his address from the AFM card, which he gave her as ID), whom she found “sad and lonely.” Ted lets Kim up in surprise, but as soon as she tries to listen to his tape, he drives her out with the vilest language, shouting obscenities after her as she runs down the hallway. The idea is supposed to be that Kim and Ted are each other’s best hope for a connection, but however vulnerable and needy Cash’s Kim might be—she’s a mid-century Pollyanna—I figure she dodged a bullet. Slotnick’s Ted is so broken and damaged, for whatever reason, he’d be dangerous to connect with. As with End Days, the cast of City Lights inhabits their roles thoroughly and credibly, but the one-dimensional characters don’t grow and have only one thing to say, and keep saying it. No one gets anywhere—they’ll all go back to where they were before the play started. Beck’s Marci is a cynic, but she’s the strongest character in the play—the whole evening, actually—and though her fling with the cabbie might be brief and meaningless, she’ll have a good time most of her life, I imagine. In Happy Hour, that amounts to a good ending.

Wayfarer’s Inn, which constitutes the second act of Happy Hour, is the most substantial piece in the evening—though that’s a low bar in this production. Set in some small city somewhere on the circuit of a pair of married traveling businessmen, Buck (Gregg) and Tony (Venito), the playlet opens in a crummy motel room (they couldn’t get into any of the big chains—there’s a college sports event on) as Buck is on the phone making a date with two women he and Tony apparently know from previous trips. Tony emerges from the shower and tells Buck he’s not really up for a night out. Tony’s suffering from existential angst, it seems, and everything seems meaningless and empty ("the world doesn't like us"), so he just wants to stay in the room. He promises Buck he’s all right (he’s just feeling “a little . . . I don’t know—Canadian”), and Buck goes off to meet Gretchen (Ana Reeder) and Lucy (Amanda Quaid) at a “very authentic” Japanese restaurant where they sit on the floor—much to the distress of Buck’s back—and the waitress (Susan Hyon) yells at them in Japanese as she serves the sake and food. This extended scene, which could actually stand as a short one-act on its own, is mostly devoted to the recounting of a story Lucy tells about the diving instructor with whom she hooked up in Costa Rica. He always wears a knife while diving, and the explanation is a fantastic tale of how he was once sucked in by a startled blowfish and had to cut himself out of the fish’s belly with the knife, so he always carries one for “self-defense.” This initiates an animated discussion about the implications of the story, whether or not it’s actually true—or even possible. Each character has her or his own interpretation: optimistic Gretchen sees it as positive, showing how clever and resourceful the diver is; Lucy sees the tragedy of the human race; and Buck notes that it’s kind of the metaphor for life these days, the very problem with which Tony was struggling back in the motel: the “hostile universe” being cut apart from the inside by an attacker it carries within it (i.e., humanity) and can’t escape. This might be the metaphor for Happy Hour as a whole and makes the scene the most interesting moment of the evening. When Buck gets back to the motel, he can’t find Tony until he goes to hang his coat up in the closet. Tony’s gone in there and shot himself in the head—though we learn in the final scene that the shot just “creased” Tony’s skull and he’ll recover. Still, Tony’s act is the only one approaching a definitive move of any of Coen’s characters—even if it is inconclusive. That’s as close to a conclusion to which any of the playlets comes, even though we don’t really know what will happen to Tony, let alone Buck. I mean, Buck stays on at the motel, though they give him another room (the only one available—unrented because the heater doesn’t work!). I’d guess that he’ll be back in town on his next business trip—though maybe he’ll stay at another motel if he can get into one. He’ll probably still call up Gretchen and Lucy—though he won’t go to such an “authentic” eatery again, he says. Venito’s Tony has little to do, though he expresses his sense of being lost well enough, even if Coen hasn’t been very articulate about what’s bothering Tony. Venito manages to make Tony a real person, a confused and lost soul without the words to express his feelings. Gregg may have the best role in Happy Hour, and he creates a character who’s both blasé about the state of modern humanity (when Tony’s trying to explain his malaise) and cognizant of it (when he’s interpreting Lucy’s fish story). Gregg’s also the only actor who’s asked to display more than one dimension (though it can’t be called growth, just instant shift).

One odd thing about this production came up when I was poking around the Internet looking for information on the play (without reading other reviews, having already read the Times). The Times review, which habitually notes the running time, listed the show as two hours and fifteen minutes. The ATC website says that Happy Hour runs 90 minutes without an intermission. When I got to the theater and picked up my program, there was an insert saying that the play would be performed with a 10-minute break. The usher explained that the intermission was added after the play opened, intimating that Happy Hour had gotten longer during rehearsals. (Even adding a 10-minute intermission, however, doesn’t account for the discrepancy between two-and-a-quarter hours and an hour-and-a-half. Something had to have been added.) It’s just a guess, of course, but I got the feeling that the Japanese restaurant scene may have been added or greatly expanded—it’s such a set-piece and seems so unlike everything else around it. (As for what the purpose of the shouting waitress is, I have no clue. Maybe Coen went to a restaurant with a server like that and he thought it would be funny, or he thinks of Japanese that way somehow, or it’s supposed to be emblematic in some way of the overall malaise depicted in Happy Hour in the same vein as the blowfish tale.)

The published reviews here were almost universally negative for the play (with mostly praise for the cast), some with a backhanded compliment or two. The New Yorker, almost complimentarily, says, “Coen’s characters are well drawn and the dialogue is pitch-perfect and fun, but watching one self-involved jerk after another becomes tiresome” and Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News describes the evening as “grimly—and flickeringly—funny.” In New York magazine, however, Scott Brown gives the nastiest appraisal: “Happy Hour, the latest string of crappy from filmmaker Ethan Coen . . ., is a powerful argument for writing plays. Not that Coen has written one. He’s actually written three non-plays—barely even sketches, really . . .” and the Times’s Isherwood sums Happy Hour up as “a wearying evening” whose recipe is: “Mix two ounces of misanthropy, one ounce of anomie and a jigger of acrid humor. Add two splashes of bitters and serve with a twist of tedium.” Hannaham concludes in the Voice that Coen is writing about a “stale subject” that “remains stale” in the production and Vincentelli characterizes Coen’s plays, like his films, as “condescending and emotionally cold” in the Post. In Back Stage, Sheward writes that as each playlet “focuses on unrelieved anger and depression,” the overall “experience is a less than happy one for the audience as well as the characters” and Variety’s Stasio, addressing those characters, writes that “the misfits, losers, and malcontents in this omnibus of one-act plays are still pretty sour specimens of humanity” whom Coen “has also made . . . devoid of any redeeming charm whatsoever.” Brown seems to have laid down the final ultimatum for everyone (including me, I might add): he figures Coen’s trying to write in a post-modern vein, coming up with “a kind of pomo gotcha,” which Brown then derides in his own “pomo” pun: “Very po’ indeed. So please, no mo’. Not till there’s a completed play.”

Even so, Happy Hour was by no stretch the worst evening I’ve spent in the theater, but my impression of Coen’s work here is that he didn’t so much have something he wanted to say, an idea he wanted to explore or depict. I think he had some general thoughts for gags or situations (‘What if some guy in a bar . . .?’ ‘What if this musician . . .?’ ‘A waitress who berates her customers in Japanese is funny.’) and decided to write them down. Maybe they were left over from some film script he worked on, who knows. But they aren’t much more than blackouts, sketches—bitter, nasty, and vulgar, but no more than skits. That he’s relatively clever with words might make them seem more substantial that they really are, but, as I used to tell my writing students, I’m from the Clara Peller School of Writing: “Where’s the beef?”

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