Monday, May 11, 2009

Offices

GRADE: B-

By Ethan Coen. Directed by Neil Pepe. Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theatre. (CLOSED)

Playwright Ethan Coen's status as one half of a popular filmmaking duo ensures heightened interest in this, his second Atlantic-produced short-play anthology, and though most critics count themselves amused, a few mightily so, there's a recurring theme of wishing for more from Coen--running time, depth of characterization, freshness of insight, sharper endings. Though a few find Coen's three one-acts rich and relevant, even some admirers feel underfed, while detractors sound positively starved for substance. There's consensus praise, though, for Neil Pepe's brisk direction and his crack cast, particularly F. Murray Abraham and John Bedford Lloyd in key lead roles.


Variety A-
(David Rooney) Three one-act plays that offer a brisk, brutal assessment of the contemporary workplace, where paper-pushing drudgery breeds alienation and paranoia but rarely efficiency, these dark situation comedies are given tasty treatment by director Neil Pepe and an adroit, multitasking cast...While it's not a whole lot more ambitious, "Offices" is more accomplished and satisfying than last year's "Almost an Evening," Coen's previous triptych of existential doodles. The new batch, presented again by the Atlantic Theater Company, benefits from a more cohesive overarching theme and a "Seinfeld"-esque knack for spinning absurdism-tinged comedy out of next to nothing...The laughs are steady, the characters sharply drawn and the actors all perfectly in tune with the writer's comic sensibility.

Talkin' Broadway A-
(Matthew Murray) This real-world familiarity, combined with Coen’s twinkle and the red-hot leisurely pace of Pepe’s production, ensures that you’ll never be mired in the sense that everyone is building to a joke you won’t get...None of this, obviously, is to be taken seriously. But because it all taps into our natural fears of bureaucracies we can’t seen and don’t understand, whether in the government or private sector, Offices has a weight and urgency that make its fluorescent flights of fancy fiercely funny, but prevent it from being strictly light fare...Even Riccardo Hernandez’s modular office set seems more like a suit-and-tie-styled zoo cage than it does a workplace-comedy set; it also helps that David Weiner has lit it with just the right note of oppressive squalor. And the crackerjack cast romping about inside is excellent...There’s one caveat to the considerable pleasures on offer here. Astute as Coen is at identifying the personalities and situations to be found at any job, he’s still not a master of the short form.

Newsday A-
(Linda Winer) Three more extravagantly concise white-collar playlets infused with wary humor and unpredictable turns of comic desperation. Staged with laser-brained timing and a luxurious cast of experts again by Atlantic's artistic director Neil Pepe, the 80-minute evening is again graced with a couple of grand hambone roles for Coen's theater muse, F. Murray Abraham. It doesn't hurt that the first and third sketches - short stories, really - hook into the country's general sense of betrayal at the office...These tiny pieces are like drawings made with a fine-tipped pen - precise, oblique and very smart.

Associated Press B+
(Michael Kuchwara) Insecurity is at the heart of these slight, darkly comic playlets...Like "Almost an Evening," Coen's maiden effort at the Atlantic last season, these timely works breeze by with a cinematic effortlessness. That's partly the result of director Neil Pepe, who moves the production at lickety-split speed, and a nimble cast, including F. Murray Abraham, that doesn't miss a beat. Their dexterity is commendable since many of the scenes in each of the plays are almost blackouts, barely minutes long...Both "Offices" and "Almost an Evening" are artful, if small works, more appetizer than five-course theatrical meal. But in both, the writer who helped create "Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men" has demonstrated he can create for the stage as well as for the movies. Now we need a full, two-act play from the man.

The Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Each segment has the off-kilter humor and spiky twists you expect from Coen...The smart-looking production is done up in nondistinct grays (nice work by set designer Riccardo Hernandez), but the acting by the crack ensemble is colorful indeed. If only Coen and director Neil Pepe could have come up with sharper conclusions for the cubicle-size comedies...Punctuality is important on the job. Considering all the workplace anxiety that's out there today, "Offices" gets to work right on time.

Theatermania B+
(Brian Scott Lipton) More accomplished and consistently amusing effort than Coen's prior work -- even if they don't linger in the mind long after one walks out the door. While not connected in any non-thematic way, the three works all follow a kind of formula in focusing on a central character's dilemma, meandering through some quirky and often funny diversions, and then essentially petering out at the end with a gentle punchline or observation. Luckily, Neil Pepe's generally smooth and well-paced direction shows the works to their best advantage...Coen has little to say about the vagaries of office life that hasn't been covered in countless films and television series, but he does have a deft way with a one-liner and nice grasp of absurdity...Much of the credit for the show's success belongs to its 11-person cast, most notably Abraham (who also shines in the opener as Slotnick's hard-nosed boss).

American Theatre Web B+
(Andy Propst) There's a good combination of intelligence, brevity and wit in this new piece, and one suspects that Coen may have hit on a grand formula for theater during the summer: sort of the theatergoers' equivalent to thoughtful summertime movie fare...Perfect for the warmer weather of summer.

CurtainUp B+
(Elyse Sommer) Coen's second outing as a playwright shows him to be a quick study. His new one-act assemblage is more solid. The newest one-acts are again stand-alone pieces, but they are more successfully integrated to fit the umbrella title, Offices...Each play consists of a number of brief scenes and a twisty ending reminiscent of an O. Henry story. All work well on Ricardo Hernandez's on-the-mark, revolving and evolving set...Neil Pepe this time around has seen to it that the scene to scene and play to play shifts move as smoothly as Hernandez's turntable set. While Coen's plays explore some Kafkaesque workplace issues, he's no more Kafka than the manager so addressed by Elliot in Peer Review. He's more like a story-telling John Stewart or Steven Colbert or the with a nod to O. Henry, the already mentioned master of short stories with surprise endings. Yet, If he keeps at this playwriting business, Mr. Coen is likely to become as deeply thoughtful as he is funny and entertaining.

New York Post B
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Coen may well have created a new genre: cubicle surrealism. In both this triptych of one-act comedies and the earlier, similarly constructed "Almost an Evening," Coen's writing for the stage displays the same virtuosic quality -- and the same problems -- found in the movies he makes with his brother, Joel. Abandoning movement, music and, well, plot in his stage work, Ethan Coen focuses solely on dialogue. He's particularly good at having aggressive characters launch into progressively unhinged riffs, as if the words acquired a life of their own...At its best, Coen's writing can achieve an almost hypnotic effect -- up until the moment you snap out of a logorrhea-induced trance and realize the show, pleasant as it is, doesn't add up to all that much. The plays may glide by as effortlessly as Riccardo Hernandez's revolving set, but they don't have any traction.

Time Out NY B
(David Cote) I have half a mind to recommend Ethan Coen’s slight bureaucracy satire, Offices, just to see F. Murray Abraham as a devil-may-care bum...Indeed, the excellent cast is the chief strength of Neil Pepe’s slick production of three short plays on the same theme: Corporate life will make you cruel, insane or moronic—or some combination of the three. This being the work of a Coen brother, it’s not enough to have a shopworn theme: You have to point out that you know it’s clich├ęd and you don’t take it seriously...Such smart-alecky material is funny, but limited. Coen is a skilled writer of deadpan comic dialogue, but his sense of dramatic structure is far too episodic and linear (maybe from years of crafting screenplays).

NY1 B
(Roma Torre) It's very funny, witty and well-acted. But the three one-act pieces that comprise this play feel underwritten. More like musings at this stage, "Offices" doesn't quite deliver a finished product...None of the endings in the three works feels satisfying. In fact, they all just seem to stop abruptly. But it's to the credit of this fine company that the middle portions are amusing enough to keep us laughing despite the flawed writing. Neil Pepe, an accomplished interpreter of Mamet's works, applies the same incisive direction here. And imperfect as it is, fans of the Coen brothers brand of blue humor are likely to keep "Offices" in business.

The New York Times B-
(Ben Brantley) Has the sting, pong and substance of cigar smoke. These acrid sketches about fear and loathing in the workplace...seem to evaporate even as you watch them. And they leave a distinctive if fleeting aftertaste that you’re not sure whether to savor or spit out...Feels like an identifiable product of the sensibility that gave us “No Country for Old Men,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “Fargo.” But in its firecracker rhythms, dictated by the relentless snap and pop of four-letter words, it also feels palpably indebted to another playwright: David Mamet...Directed with sinister verve by Neil Pepe and acted with authority by a cast that includes F. Murray Abraham, “Offices” mostly sustains the illusion that it’s meatier than it is.

New Yorker C
Glib, terse, and inconsequential, these anecdotes probably wouldn’t have found their way before paying customers were not the playwright, Ethan Coen, one of the filmmaking Coen brothers. More story, more thought, and a little less self-satisfaction would have been welcome. F. Murray Abraham as a panhandler who briefly becomes a suit is almost worth the price of admission. Crisply directed by Neil Pepe on a revolving stage that has a life of its own.

Entertainment Weekly C-
(Melissa Rose Bernardo) If Coen's first work was Almost an Evening, Offices could be called Even Less of an Evening...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?

Bloomberg News D+
(John Simon) Does not lack for easy laughs, but is more a sequence of skits than a trio of plays, despite an overarching theme...Since it concerns tricky doings in not-dissimilar venues, the 80-minute show is meant to have the impact of a full-length play in three scenes. Yet 20 roles played by 11 actors in relatively short time do not allow for much characterization. Language and plot must carry Coen’s second almost-evening. But can they?...There is confident direction from Neil Pepe, suitably bleak scenery from Riccardo Hernandez, appropriately gray costuming from Laura Bauer and unforgiving lighting by David Weiner. So what prevents the show from rating higher? It is that the Coen touch -- on stage as on screen -- is more smartass than smart. It panders sedulously to anti-establishment attitudes and thumbs its nose at credibility.

Backstage D-
(Erik Haagensen) Even though it clocks in at a mere 75 minutes, Ethan Coen's latest collection of one-acts wears out its welcome long before it's over, mistaking as it does banality for hipness. The all-too-predictable use of staccato dialogue, casual profanity, snarky attitudinizing, deadpan acting, and crude sexual humor is as old as the hills and as deep as a child's wading pool...In all three pieces, Coen exhibits an annoying fondness for calculatedly absurd juxtapositions—perfectly encapsulated by the use of a loopy country-western cover of the title song from Rose Marie to introduce the evening—and an unsavory tendency to mine cruelty for cheap laughs...Under the guidance of Neil Pepe, Atlantic Theater Company's artistic director, the wildly overqualified cast does as it's asked with confidence...It should be noted that a fair amount of the audience, though by no means all, laughed a great deal.

Village Voice F
[Coen's] jokes are few—and bad...In a series of short, assaultive scenes about unpleasant workplaces, the Atlantic Theater's 11-member cast antagonize, embarrass, and insult one another. If these scenes are colorless, the verbal abuse is not: Coen's curses range from "stooge fucker" to "nameless tormentor" to "bitch baby" to "shit-squeezer." What the plays lack in humor and cleverness they make up for in ineffectual fury. Perhaps Coen should take a coffee break. Make it decaf.

Variety A- 12; Talkin' Broadway A- 12; Newsday A- 12; Associated Press B+ 11; The Daily News B+ 11; Theatermania B+ 11; ATW B+ 11; CurtainUp B+ 11; New York Post B 10; TONY B 10; NY1 B 10; The New York Times B- 9; NYer C 7; Entertainment Weekly C- 6; Bloomberg News D+ 5; Backstage D- 3; VV F 1; TOTAL: 152/17=8.94 (B-)

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