Hot on the cowboy-booted heels of No Country for Old Men and its eight Oscar nominations comes Almost an Evening, a bill of three short plays by Ethan Coen that’s as boisterous and fun as Country — which Ethan adapted and directed with brother Joel — is spare and profound. The curtain-raiser, ”Waiting,” is an amusing Sartre-influenced ode to bureaucracy in the afterlife (it’s the wittiest, and most subtle, of the playlets); ”Four Benches” features a naked cowboy and a suit-clad Englishman in a steam room (side note: this is the second straight play, after Cymbeline, in which actor Jonathan Cake has donned a towel for a steam-room scene…is there a third in store?); ”Debate” centers on a profane play within a play in which the foul-mouthed, robe-clad, mandal-wearing, long-haired ”God Who Judges” (F. Murray Abraham) comes to blows with the soft-spoken, coddling, televangelist-style ”God Who Loves” (Mark Linn-Baker).
”Debate” gets the most laughs — largely owing to the expletive-riddled monologues Coen has written for God Who Judges, which Abraham tears into with gusto. On body piercing: ”I gotta tell you not to stick metal rings in your vulvas? For what, car keys?” On driving to the theater: ”You’re gonna bitch about parking? Next time try riding an ass to the show.” It’s also the most meandering of the trio, moving from the god-on-god action to a post-show deconstruction by audience members (Mary McCann, Jordan Lage), an outburst by a harried restaurant host (Cake), and an argument between Abraham’s actor character and his feminist girlfriend (a fierce — and criminally underused — Elizabeth Marvel).
Coen couldn’t ask for a better production than this Atlantic Theater Company treatment; the actors are top-notch (McCann and Joey Slotnick, in particular, are exceptional as a bored typist and a harried dead man in ”Waiting”), and director Neil Pepe keeps everything moving briskly. If there’s not as much meat as one might expect from Coen, well, chalk it up to this being his Off Broadway debut. Personally, I can’t wait to see what he’ll do with a full Evening of theater. (Tickets: Ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200)