Misery Loathes Audiences

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The insistent irony of the titleHappy Hourshould be enough to tip audiences off to what to expect from the trio of Ethan Coen-penned one acts, staged at a glacial pace by Neil Pepe. Surprise! None of these characters are happy! And this collection is definitely not an hour.

Things start off excruciatingly immediately, with the bitter monologue (there are a few lines delivered by other actors, but they're just fodder) "End Days." "End Days" is also the only work set in an actual bar, rendering the umbrella title even more ridiculous. Railing against the injustices of life for the better part of half an hour, Hoffman (Gordon MacDonald) never met a bar fly he couldn't bully, nor a piece of bad news he couldn't smack his lips over. Unmitigated bile is difficult to take, but Pepe's insistence on dragging out the wisp of a play makes it unbearable; even MacDonald can only find so many shadings to a rageaholic.

Somehow even worse is the '70s set "City Lights," in which a misanthropic, misogynistic musician (Joey Slotnick) barrels into the lives of both a kindly cabbie (Rock Kohli) and a teary, freshly dumped schoolteacher (Aya Cash). He's brusque and rude, when he's not getting stoned and eating Oreos; she has serious issues with cursing. Yet, for some reason, she's attracted enough to him to track down his apartment-a major mistake on her part that ends the first act on such an ugly note that one is sorely tempted to abandon the theater for a scalding shower.

The final installment, "Wayfarer's Inn," at least benefits from an accomplished comic performance from the reliable Clark Gregg (doing his best Clark Gregg) and a bustier impression of Melanie Griffith from Ana Reeder, as married man Buck and his date Gretchen. Along for a bizarre sushi dinner is Lucy (Amanda Quaid, looking and sounding out of place), who barks out a laugh at the thought that love might be more important than friendship. Lust, at least, seems more important than friendship for Buck, who has left his depressed friend Tony (Lenny Venito) at their hotel, with predictably unfortunate-and interminable-results.

Originally advertised as 90 minutes, during the preview processHappy Hour's running time crept up to two-plus hours, easily attributable to Pepe's insistence on wringing every possible beat out of awkward silences and the repetition of jokes that weren't funny the first time, let alone the fifth (people struggle to unlock their door! Hilarious!). Even a cast of up-and-coming actors and established performers seem at a loss with these dingy men and women. At least at an actual happy hour, the cornered patron can self-medicate with booze while listening to the tales of woe from fellow drinkers. AtHappy Hour, we have to grimace and bear it.

Happy Hour

Through Dec. 31, Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd St. (betw. 10th and 11th Aves.), www.atlantictheater.org; $65.

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