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STAGE REVIEW

‘Evening’ provokes some thought

Marc Harpin and Jeff Gill in Theatre on Fire’s production of Ethan Coen’s triptych of short plays, “Almost an Evening.’’ Marc Harpin and Jeff Gill in Theatre on Fire’s production of Ethan Coen’s triptych of short plays, “Almost an Evening.’’ (Theatre On Fire)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / October 12, 2010

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In titling his triptych of short plays “Almost an Evening,’’ a Theatre on Fire production now at Charlestown Working Theater, Ethan Coen has certainly immunized himself against charges of false advertising.

The first, “Waiting,’’ is conceptually intriguing but ultimately underwhelming. The second, “Four Benches,’’ has a couple of arresting moments, but it, too, runs out of gas. Only the third, “Debate,’’ manages to be as funny, provocative, and original as any moviegoer knows Coen can be.

It adds up to almost an evening of theater, like the man said.

One is left wishing that Coen had pushed himself more and tried to create a full-bodied work that would remain lodged in the memory like “No Country for Old Men,’’ “Blood Simple,’’ “Fargo,’’ or pretty much any of the other films he has made with his brother Joel.

But except for “Debate,’’ Coen contents himself with lightly absurdist riffs on theological or philosophical questions that are more interesting to think about than to watch.

In “Waiting,’’ a nebbishy fellow named Mr. Nelson (Marc Harpin) sits in a nondescript waiting room and waits, and waits, and waits some more, with only a receptionist (Kate Donnelly) for company. She keeps her back to him while she types steadily away, vouchsafing only the occasional terse utterance.

It turns out that the room has no doors. It further turns out that Mr. Nelson is, um, not the man he used to be. He is dead, in fact, and appears to be in purgatory. But his instinct for upward mobility lives on, and he’s eager to move on to heaven.

However, bureaucracy has its rules, even in the afterlife, and he’s told he will have to wait . . . 822 years. When that time is up, he brings the necessary paperwork to the admissions office, only to learn there’s been an error, and he actually has to wait 8,022 years. And after he serves that stint, he returns to the admissions office, only to learn. . .

Harpin wrings some laughs and poignancy out of Mr. Nelson’s mounting desperation, and director Darren Evans (the artistic director of Theatre on Fire), creates some moments of dread. But even without considering what Beckett and Sartre did with similar material, Coen doesn’t go deep enough in “Waiting,’’ doesn’t commit himself to fully exploring either the humor or the horror, and doesn’t much surprise us with his ending.

In “Four Benches,’’ a bowler-hatted British secret agent (played by Craig Houk) experiences an identity crisis of sorts after the dimensions of what he does for a living become clear to him. While cleverly staged by Evans, the piece feels tossed-off and generally undeveloped, as if Coen lost interest halfway through writing it. The first few minutes of “Four Benches’’ are played in total darkness, and theatergoers are likely to have a similar feeling when it’s over.

And “Debate’’? Well, now we’re talking. If only the current campaign season offered debates that were half as entertaining.

The play features a rhetorical duel between two versions of God: the God Who Judges and the God Who Loves. First up is the white-robed God Who Judges (Jeff Gill, in a hilarious, red-faced performance), and boy, is He mad at us.

He launches into a blistering indictment of us miserable humans, dropping many F-bombs along the way. God lets us know that He is furious about the way we keep looking for loopholes in the Ten Commandments, our whining about everything from parents to parking (reminding us that, after all, humans once had to get about by donkey), our obsession with our feelings, and our generally self-indulgent behavior.

“So I want you to [expletive] cut it out,’’ He snarls. “Like the body piercing. What in the name of [expletive] is that? Made in my image, right? And you’re gonna what, put metal rings through it? This by you is an improvement?’’

When it’s His turn, the God Who Loves (played by Harpin) takes an infinitely kinder and gentler approach, but that only makes the God Who Judges even madder. After their inevitable showdown, Coen takes things a meta-step further, presenting two couples at a restaurant who argue over “Debate’’ and the Meaning of It All.

It’s a bit anticlimactic, but it doesn’t detract from the profane pleasures of “Debate.’’ And I, for one, will never complain about parking again.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

ALMOST AN EVENING

By Ethan Coen

Directed by: Darren Evans.

Sets, Luke J. Sutherland. Lights, Eric Jacobsen. Costumes, Juliana Gregori. Sound, Darren Evans. Presented by Theatre on Fire at Charlestown Working Theater.

Through Oct. 23. Tickets $15-$20, 866-811-4111, www.charles townworkingtheater.org.