There isn’t anyone you’d want to get a drink with in Happy Hour, a new three-part suite of sharply acted dark comedies by Ethan Coen, playing Off Broadway through Dec. 31 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Peter Norton Space. Luckily, misanthropes have made for lively theater since before Molière, and Coen (half of the Oscar-winning brotherly duo) has made a career of putting them to good use.
In the caustic ”End of Days,” a long-winded conspiracy theorist (Gordon MacDonald) fills the entire act with an extended bar-side rant (on the environment, the future, the ”digital smegma” that is fouling our world) that plays less like a monologue than a sustained musical phrase; it’s an aria of neurosis. The screaming matches between a sociophobic musician (Joey Slotnick) and two puzzled acquaintances (Aya Cash and Cassie Beck, both very funny) in ”City Lights” are just as comically rich, wrapped up in the sexual tension of a pair of budding romances sparked by a misplaced bag. Even the final piece, ”Wayfarer’s Inn,” manages moments of prickly humor in a bleak tale that wanders from the budget hotel room of two business travelers (Clark Gregg and Lenny Venito) to a dinner with a pair of hot-to-trot locals (Amanda Quaid and Anna Reader).
The plays have intimate, fraternal similarities, and they all scratch the same itch: an urge to ponder the Big Questions of life — out loud and at length. Their nonspecific settings (a beige-on-beige living room; an empty bar; an anonymous hotel) will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the Coens’ 2009 film A Serious Man: They’re not so much physical spaces as emotional ones, landscapes of imposing blandness filled with the noisy static of human thought.
Coen transcribes those thoughts brilliantly, and his characters jump to life from their first words. But parts of his triptych have a dashed-off feel, like sketches for a fuller piece: a clever idea here, a great line of dialogue there. The plots meander and fall off cliffs. Coen isn’t worried about satisfying our baser desires for resolutions or clarity. Like the doomsayer in ”End of Days,” he seems to be speaking less to be heard than to exorcise his thoughts. Listen if you want; he’ll be there until last call. B
(Tickets: TicketCentral.com or 212-279-4200)