'Almost an Evening' almost makes it

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By Doug Deuchler


Circle Theatre currently has two productions on the boards. In their main space, the Australian play When the Rain Stops Falling is sold out for what remains of its run. That show has become the "hottest ticket in town." Simultaneously, in Circle's smaller Studio performance space in the side storefront just to the east, there's now Almost an Evening, a trio of one-act plays by Ethan Coen.

If you're a film fan, you surely know Ethan Coen, half of the Oscar-winning team known as the Coen Brothers. Ethan has made something like 15 movies with his big brother Joel, including Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, and No Country For Old Men. In 2008 Ethan made his playwriting debut with this cluster of three satiric playlets.

The accurate title of this play says it all. These short works are often funny. Yet you don't get the feeling of fulfillment or satisfaction that an evening of theater can provide. Back in the day when folks like Elaine May used to write stuff like this, they called their product "cabaret skits." This has the feeling of recycled material from the early '60s. It's as if Rod Serling of Twilight Zone and Jean Paul Sartre of No Exit somehow had an Off-Broadway baby. This slight program of three existential parables may be more interesting to discuss than watch.

The show is well-acted, however, and everyone in the talented troupe appears at least twice. The energetic direction is by J. Christopher Brown, who also designed flexible set panels that enable the intimate performance space to become an assortment of locations.

In "Waiting," the first of the one-acts, an impatient everyman (Robert Rafferty) endlessly passes his time in what appears to be purgatory. Generations go by, yet the only other person in the windowless waiting room is a receptionist (Stephanie Stockstill) who incessantly types on an old manual typewriter. She cannot or will not explain his plight or provide him with any answers as to why he is not allowed to pass through the Pearly Gates. Rafferty elicits laughs with his escalating desperation. But he's trapped in an infuriating bureaucratic nightmare that grows increasingly predictable. David Besky is funny as a near-sighted administrator.

The second piece, called "Four Benches," begins in near total darkness in a steam-room in New York City. This episode, about the life-changing meeting of a bowler-hatted British secret agent (Chris Carr) and an easy-going Texas tourist (Matt Thinnes), quickly loses momentum. Of the three one-acts, this one feels the most underdeveloped.

The last episode, "Debate," features two visions of God — a harsh, thundering one who rages (Ian Paul Custer) and one who is kinder, gentler, and loving (Besky). The foul-mouthed God rants about everything from nipple piercing to those "cry-babies" who whine about having trouble finding parking places. It's quite funny — profane and provocative. The angry God drops a lot of F-bombs. Just when it seems the sketch is over, we're in a restaurant (decorated Sardi's-style with caricature drawings of actors like George Clooney and John Malkovich.) There's a self-absorbed maitre d' (Carr) who's always on a personal phone call while a dining couple argue over the meaning of it all. The man (Custer) had actually appeared as the vengeful God in that just-seen play; his lady friend (Bridget Haight) was deeply annoyed by that performance.

Each of the three short works that Almost An Evening comprises feature multiple locations. Coen, so accustomed to having a camera effortlessly dissolve one scene into another, doesn't seem to grasp set changes on stage during a live production. The virtually constant rearrangement of props and furniture grows tiresome. These awkward transitions hamper the flow and pacing of the sketches.

For those for whom it might matter, during these playlets there is a barrage of profanity, some brief male nudity (in semi-darkness), and several gunshots.

Others in the cast of 10 are Daniel Alexander, Jim Heatherly and Katelyn Smith. Tara Malpass is the stage manager.

There are two 10-minute intermissions which separate the three plays.

Ethan Coen has continued writing short dramatic works since this 2008 effort so hopefully he's hit his stride. Despite the strong performances and solid direction of the production, I found this particular effort rather underwhelming.

Doug Deuchler is a longtime educator and historian who, when he isn't reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent, film class instructor and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.

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