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  1. Stage

Review: In Jobsite's 'Almost an Evening,' Coen taste for absurd works heavenly in hell

TAMPA — When one of the Coen brothers ventures into play writing, you expect the result will be quirky and funny and often dark. If you like their movies, you figure there's a better than even chance you'll come away happy.

Such was the case for this Coen brothers fan Friday after Ethan Coen's Almost an Evening, with which Jobsite Theater opened its new season. The three shorts, directed by Matthew Ray, delivered the kind of irreverent yet thought-provoking moments seen throughout the brothers' movies Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Raising Arizona.

With a minimalist set by Brian Smallheer in the intimate Shimberg Playhouse at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, this production kept its focus on the actors, who by the third vignette were interacting with the audience. Jobsite's show entertains as it engages, and reminds us to see the humor in the darkest situations.

In the first short, "Waiting," a woman referred to only as Nelson (the play opened Off Broadway with a man in the role), enters a bare waiting room staffed by a receptionist at a typewriter. The script doesn't play coy, openly and quickly establishing that this, like Sartre's No Exit, is an afterlife scenario and not a very pleasant one.

In time, a door emerges with a bureaucrat behind it. Resolutions are, to put it mildly, slow to come by. Melissa Ruchong as Nelson neatly conveys the limitations of her physical space which, like the other torments, you can't see. Jordan Foote as the chatty paper pusher at the desk and Jonelle Meyer as the receptionist from hell give the vignette a one-two punch.

During one of those interminable waiting periods, Nelson asks the receptionist, "Do you ever change the magazines?"

The next short, "The Four Benches," opens with another vaguely nether-world setting, a dimly lit steam bath. Like the incessant typing in the previous scene, the ambient drip-dripping in this one hints at hell of being stuck in one place forever, at a death by a thousand cuts.

The intentionally dim lighting design by Ryan Finzelber takes some getting used to, but the figures and their motives become clear soon. The most complicated subplot of the three pieces doesn't change the central conflict, between a folksy Texan (Matthew Frankel) and a cool and reserved Brit played by Spencer Meyers, or between the Meyers character (known as "One") and himself. Meyers' unraveling of a multi-layered character is one of the many things to like about Almost an Evening.

The third and most compelling part of the show, "Debate," pits Old Testament God and New Testament God against each other. It begins with a lengthy and passionate rant at the audience by the God Who Judges, played with Owen Robertson with so much invective it almost feels personal.

"They're the 10 Commandments, not the 10 f---ing suggestions!" the Old Testament big guy shouts at one point.

His counterpoint is the God Who Loves (Jonelle Meyer), promoting a squishily nuanced theology that gets increasingly more over-the-top as the bit moves on. Robertson and Meyer are both a delight to watch, and the audience becomes drawn into the joke.

Though the show moves quickly at 85 minutes or so, a rather sustained denouement feels as if it goes on a little too long. But by then, the cast had won over the audience, who seemed more than happy to go along for the ride.

Like most good artists, the Coen brothers always defy easy labeling. Their films are never as eccentric or even as dark as the shorthand we have adopted to describe them. Jobsite's Almost an Evening does justice both to the frivolity and the substance within Ethan Coen's script.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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