Theater Review: Jobsite Theater gives us Almost An Evening

Almost An Evening is night of dark, kooky Coen-brother comedy.

Almost an Evening
3 out of 5 stars
Through Oct. 4, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; Straz Center’s Shimberg Playhouse, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. $28. 813-229-7827.

Late last decade, the Coen Brothers introduced us to evil at its most severely banal with Oscar winner No Country for Old Men. Right after, Ethan Coen ventured from movie set to stage, to a more comical corner of the dark side with Almost An Evening. Jobsite Theater brings us the offbeat set of vignettes that deal with hell, God and silly mortals, blessing it with a crack cast, Matthew Ray in the director’s chair, and the requisite lighting and set-pieces for Coen’s particular brand of quirky moodiness.

Some words of advice before seeing Almost An Evening: Don’t see this if you’re tired or need a blissful escape. Coen seems to get a kick out of making the audience a little uncomfortable. There’s a lot of dreadful waiting and ennui, which the cast plays up for laughs — much like the tension in the Coens’ Barton Fink. If you’re not familiar with the brothers’ hallucinogenic absurdities, the tongue-in-cheek morality plays in Almost An Evening might grate on you.

This couldn’t be more true with the first story, appropriately titled “Waiting,” which fetches laughs but makes us feel twitchy. Written for a man, but starrring instead a very funny female (Melissa Ruchong), the play introduces us to the not-so-dearly departed Ms. Nelson, who endures what she’s told is purgatory in a 1950s-esque waiting room. The poor gal keeps thinking she’s about to get through to heaven, but hundreds and thousands of years are added to her wait time, forcing her to sit for centuries with outdated magazines and an unfriendly receptionist (Jonelle Meyer) who relentlessly pecks at an old typewriter as a Muzak version of “The Girl From Ipanema” plays over and over again in the background. Nelson seeks help from higher-ups (Jordan Foote, Landon Green), but they carelessly muck up the paperwork.

The premise works great: Waiting rooms are indeed hell, but the series of unfortunate events starts to feel overwrought and would have worked better interspersed throughout the production than performed all in one batch. Yeah, yeah, then it wouldn’t feel like hell. (More on that later.)

The second vignette, “Four Benches,” starts out in a dark sauna with muddy dialogue and deadens the pace of the production, but things pick up a few minutes later when a foppish British spy (Spencer Meyers) seeks redemption too late and expresses his need to become “a people person” after causing the death of an innocent man. He’s punished for his long life of emotional avoidance by being unable to make the most minor of human connections. When the spy speaks to a Texan with a Dude-like aura (Matthew Frankel), the young man of large stature exits without muttering a word.

In “Debate,” we’re treated to some hearty belly laughs and the pace quickens. Squaring off are God Who Judges (Owen Robertson) and God Who Loves (Meyer). Robertson’s judgy God once again recalls a Big Lebowski character — this time, Stan — as he launches into hilarious rants about whiny humans. (“I gotta tell you not to stick metal rings in your vulvas? What, for your car keys? You don’t have POCKETS?”)

Meyer as the loving God also gets some big laughs as she meticulously articulates words of encouragement and inspiration, conjuring Kathie Lee Gifford crossed with a hippie elementary school teacher. Her loony self-fashioned sign language is a fittingly cartoony touch.

After the three vignettes, the show meanders into a Gilliam-esque epilogue and gets meta on us, alternating between two couples deconstructing the plays over dinner. The women stereotypically hate it (well played by Melissa Ruchong and Molly Schoolmeester), putting into words premonitions of what critics might say about the show. During these scenes, lighting designer Ryan Finzelber, scenic designer Brian Smallheer and costume designer Beth Tepe-Robertson conspire to conjure old lounge music album covers and an overall vintage look most fitting for a Coen work.

Back to those stubbornly enlongated moments — you can’t help but wonder if Coen wrote the play to amuse himself more than others. Some of the bits work on stage, some feel like they would be much better on film. It’s at those junctures between madness and entertainment that the show veers from entertainment to art installation, as if Coen is inviting you to have “almost an evening.” You just have to decide if you’re up for it.

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