In Ethan Coen’s second act, an iconoclastic vision is traded in for small divertissements

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Ethan Coen with Riccardo Hernandez. (Atlantic Theater Company)
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"Happy Hour," an evening of one-act plays, is not the first foray in playwrighting for the Oscar-award-winning director Ethan Coen, mostly famous as one half of the iconoclastic Hollywood duo The Coen Brothers.

Coen first went out on his own in what the trades call the "legit" theater back in early 2008, with another evening of one-acts, "Almost an Evening."

When that opened, New York Times critic Ben Brantley had a curious take: Coen would not deliver for his own film fans the kind of "auteur-style shivers" they've come to love from movies like No Country for Old Men, but in fact would be delivered theater in "the vanishing tradition of Mike Nichols and Elaine May" and their "urbane, mind-teasing divertissements that once flourished Off Broadway—but withered away in the profit-hungry age of Broadway-or-bust economics."

That Coen is now accepted as a legit playwright is confirmed by the presence of his one-act, Talking Cure, on Broadway as part of an evening of one-act plays, "Relatively Speaking," featuring entries from Woody Allen and Elaine May. (It's still showing.) There, he stands up well: The acolyte's "Talking Cure" seems sharp and funny in the company of the high priests of the profession.

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And maybe that is all part of the problem with his new effort.

At various times, "Happy Hour" sounds, well, derivative. It may be that making his way past Brantley's "urbane, mind-teasing divertissements" to deliver something that is distinctly his own is still beyond his abilities as a playwright.

Gordon MacDonald offers heavy doses of expletive-laced bluster and bile as the angry drunk at the center of the opening play, End Days. Carrying almost the entire act, since he rarely lets anyone else get a word in edgewise, MacDonald sits at a bar and rants about the state of the world, from the global depletion of natural resources to war in the Middle East, to “millionaires buzzing around in private planes…balancing cocktails on their dicks.” With all his brash talk of sphincters and smegma and jerking off (and anti-Semitism), he seems plucked from a Mamet play. But despite MacDonald’s strong performance, the character doesn’t really have anywhere to go from his barstool, so End Days never feels like much more than a character sketch of a crank.

Set in the 1970s (for no obvious reason, other than a joke about Jimmy Carter), City Lights has more of an arc, and a lighter touch. Ted (Joey Slotnick) is a struggling musician (read: egotistical, foul-mouthed pothead) who meets a kind but uptight woman named Kim (Aya Cash). Their unlikely flirtation is complicated by Kim’s judgmental and sharp-tongued friend Marci, who doesn’t want her naively optimistic friend to get involved with a jaded “dream squasher” like Ted. The action switches back and forth between Ted and Kim’s dumpy apartments—opposite sides of the utilitarian, if not particularly attractive, set by Riccardo Hernandez—as the sexual tension ratchets up. A stream of jokes about neurotic New Yorkers, sexual morality, and the United Jewish Appeal echoes Allen and rather predictably earns its fair share of laughs, especially the ones that come from actor Cassie Beck as scowling Marci. But the ugly ending seems abrupt and out of the blue, and makes intermission something of a head-scratcher.

The evening concludes with Wayfarer’s Inn, about a couple of married men planning a double date with women who aren’t their wives. From the touching scenes of the two guys talking mostly openly about their emotional problems, to the sometimes slapstick date in a stereotypical Japanese restaurant, the plot is reminiscent of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple at times—but ultimately, it’s darker than Simon. Clark Gregg (from the TV show The New Adventures of Old Christine) is utterly likable as the smooth philanderer Buck, and Ana Reeder and Amanda Quaid bring the laughs as Gretchen and Lucy. The highlights of the evening come in a pair of extended metaphors that Coen draws out just long enough to get pleasantly ridiculous: one about how love is like a meringue while friendship is like a custard, and the other a story about a diver who gets caught in a blowfish’s stomach and has to cut his way out—a parable about how men and women view their situations differently. Once again, though, the ending, centering on Buck’s depressive buddy Tony (Lenny Venito), gets dark; this time it’s not out of the blue, but altogether too predictable. But either way, it doesn’t quite work.

Coen's first Broadway outings may have had appeal for nostalgists who miss the kind of theater that flourished in the hands of Simon, Allen, May and, to a degree, Mamet and Neil LaBute. But what "Happy Hour" shows, more than anything, is how Coen's forebears on the stage managed their divertissements while creating worlds that were entirely their own. This is something that the maker of films from The Big Lebowski to Fargo to No Country for Old Men, who built his career on the screen with an uncompromising iconoclasm, might have been expected to ace: The undisciplined student finding a structure for the stage that makes his unique voice work. Instead, Coen's stage work seems, so far, to be developing into something less exciting and less satisfying: the work of a playwright searching for his voice in the confines of an old idiom, and finding other people’s voices instead.

Happy Hour is showing at the Atlantic Theater Company at Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd St. Tickets are $65. Call 212-279-4200 or buy online.