BWW Review: Jobsite Theater Tackles ALMOST AN EVENING, Ethan Coen's Quirky View of Hell
Remember "Night Gallery," Rod Serling's follow-up to his classic TV series, "The Twilight Zone"? If you don't, it was a similar anthology series, just not as good, and it certainly stands as a fun relic of the Age of Stoning, i.e. the Seventies. One episode always interested me--"Hell's Bells," featuring John Astin as an aging hippie DJ who dies in a motorcycle accident. He finds himself in hell, first in a "bummer" of a waiting room, and then in a living room with a boring elderly couple in Hawaiian shirts sharing slides of their family vacations. When the hippie is disappointed with the lack of fire and brimstone that he had come to expect, the devil soon arrives and informs the hippie that heaven and hell have the same décor. This may be his hell, but it also acts as heaven for the elderly couple in Hawaiian shirts.
I was reminded of that "Night Gallery" episode when I saw Jobsite Theater's season opener in the Shimberg Playhouse--ALMOST AN EVENING by Ethan Coen (of the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers fame, responsible for Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Hudsucker Proxy, Miller's Crossing, Inside Llewyn Davis and The Big Lebowski). Coen's play features three one-acts about death and various forms of hell (the funny but obvious "Waiting", the meandering and unsuccessful "Four Benches", and the wonderful "Debate"). It's entertaining and clever in spots, and Coen's patented quirkiness bleeds through. But it has the feeling of being nothing more than a group of sketches, like a more cerebral "Night Gallery" (but not much more), and the results are decidedly uneven. At times each short play feels like a prolonged "Saturday Night Live" skit as written by Jean Paul Sartre. Thankfully the strength of Jobsite's mighty ensemble makes the rambling stories well worth watching.
The first short, "Waiting," isn't that far removed from the aforementioned "Night Gallery" plot or a myriad of other works where hell is portrayed as a waiting room of sorts. There's nothing really new here, but the wonderful thing about this segment is that it truly gives us a glimpse of a hell we can all understand--the pathetic hope for something better in an eternity where nothing is better. It's a cosmic joke, and it works well here. Melissa Ruchong plays the poor unfortunate soul with definite gusto--but her transformation as her perceived purgatory keeps getting extended doesn't reach the crazed heights needed. But Jordan Foote is an absolute hoot as a sort of office manager for the hereafter. Best of all, in a nearly silent role as a receptionist from hell (literally), Jonelle Meyer steals the whole thing with mere glances. I always look for those actors who are always in character, always in the moment, especially when they have no lines, and since Meyer doesn't have many lines at this opening scene (but remains onstage throughout it), her various facial expressions and comedic timing are a thing of beauty.
Everyone has their personal Song from Hell. There are thousands of tunes out there to be celebrated for their eternal badness ("Muskrat Love" maybe? "You're Having My Baby"? Or my personal choice, Billy Joel's "Piano Man"?). Well, "The Girl from Ipanema" needs to be added to that list of taint. And ALMOST AN EVENING uses it brilliantly when an elevator muzak version of the Stan Getz classic plays over and over throughout the opening one act. It's a great touch, hilariously and appropriately annoying, and we surely understand the hell that Ruchong's character faces. Imagine an eternity to the tune of "The Girl from Ipanema," and you have a sordid hereafter that not even Dante could fathom.
The second segment, "Four Benches," featuring benches in a park and in a steam room, certainly contains Coen's oddness, strange twists and offbeat dialogue that we've come to expect. But it's all over the place and nowhere at the same time, which is how I see some of the Coen brothers' more eccentric films. And steam room scenes are nothing new (Fellini even did it with an allusion to Dante's Inferno in the steam bath scene of 1963's 8-1/2). This section spotlights Jobsite favorite Spencer Meyers, who's always a blast to watch onstage, but his British accent seems forced here and his talents seem underutilized. Again, Jonelle Meyer saves the day by making this middle section more palatable.
The last segment ("Debate") is where you can find the meat of the show, at least performance-wise. Using a play within a play, it showcases a battle between the two sides of God--the God Who Judges and the God Who Loves. It's beautifully directed by Matthew Ray, and the performances of Owen Robertson (as God Who Judges) and Jonelle Meyer again (as God Who Loves) are the finest of the evening. The two of them, along with Jordan Foote's various characters throughout, are the main reason to dive into this giddy-fun Coen hell. And Robertson, in particular, rocked my world with his wall-shaking speeches. In some ways, his ferocious God-rants act as a starting pistol--the new season of local theater has officially begun (the rest of the show sometimes seemed like a warm up to Robertson's and Meyer's powerful, and funny, speeches).
The entire ensemble (including Matthew Frankel, a puckish Landon Green, and Molly Schoolmeester) does first rate work. Brian Smallheer's set is appropriately minimal (I like the small touches, like the red telephone with a dial--a phone so outdated that many Millennials may find it strange). Set-wise, don't expect Hieronymus Bosch's busy view of the underworld, or Fra Angelico's bizarre, people-chomping "Last Judgment" beast (or for that matter, the wild ride of "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" from The Book of Mormon). The hell (and earth) in these vignettes is different, everyday and slightly dull, like real life (John Astin's hippie character in that "Night Gallery" episode would be disappointed in the lack of Satanic pomp and circumstance, but less is more in this case). Ryan Finzelber's lighting is rightfully unobtrusive (I especially like the golden hue in the windows of "purgatory," suggesting a distant heaven in the first sequence). Beth Tepe-Robertson's costumes also work well. The music is from all over the pop culture map, starting with the continuous loop of "The Girl from Ipanema" (I think the song got trapped in my head and even played in my dreams last night, turning them into my very own spooky, non-Mormon hell dreams). Some of the set-change music includes Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" theme and Crash Test Dummies' "MMM MMM MMM MMM," one of the quirkiest tunes of the Nineties.
Though often more obvious than one might expect from Coen, the show is a great way to start Jobsite's season, even if it doesn't really leave us entirely fulfilled. It's like an appetizer platter rather than a main meal. It feels incomplete, and Coen obviously realized this, which must be why he called it ALMOST AN EVENING. (I keep wanting to refer to it as "Almost a Show.") But with Jonelle Meyer, Owen Robertson and Jordan Foote at the top of their game and leading the way, ALMOST AN EVENING turns out to be one hell of a good time.
Jobsite Theater's production of ALMOST AN EVENING plays at the Shimberg Playhouse in the Straz Performing Arts Center thru October 4th. For more information, please call (813) 476-7378.