'A Play Is a Poem': Theater Review

A Play is a Poem - Production still - H 2019
Craig Schwartz
Modest work under great expectations.

Ethan Coen premieres a quintet of one-acts at the Mark Taper Forum, directed by longtime stage collaborator Neil Pepe and deploying the writer's characteristic wit and offbeat sensibility.

If Oscar-winning screenwriter Ethan Coen was nervous about the world premiere of his new collection of one-acts, he had plenty of moral support to sustain him on opening night. Friends like Brad Pitt, John Goodman, Laurence Fishburne, Josh Brolin, Judy Greer, Clark Gregg, John Ortiz and sister-in-law Frances McDormand turned out, many of them collaborators on acclaimed films by the Coen brothers. Like most, they no doubt anticipated some of the scabrous wit, jokey noir sensibility, thoughtful plotting and often existential, if not nihilistic, thematic elements that have come to characterize the filmmakers' body of work. Instead, the audience got about half that. Clever dialogue and offbeat humor woven into thin plotting and scant thematic undertones make A Play Is a Poem a pleasant diversion, if little more.

It begins with a song by Nellie McKay, who delivers quirky and eccentric musical interstitials throughout. The first is marked by a yodeling refrain that places what's to come somewhere between Appalachia and the Alps, befitting a quintet that spans time, space and subject matter, united only by Coen's singular voice.

The Redeemers presents a pair of redneck brothers, Cal (Max Casella) and Wes (Joey Slotnick), who have just murdered their abusive father and placed him under the floorboards when they are visited by their self-righteous brother, Gary Allen (C.J. Wilson), a sheriff with too many questions. The brothers are Coen-esque types — cousins of the criminals played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in Fargo, the bone-headed bowling pals portrayed by John Goodman and Buscemi in The Big Lebowski, or Goodman and William Forsythe's escaped cons in Raising Arizona. Thin on plot and character, The Redeemers is grisly good fun, a shot glass to start off the evening.

Crackerjack period dialogue evokes that of Ben Hecht or I.A.L. Diamond in A Tough Case, in which Slotnick plays private detective Ed Curtin. His hapless new partner is a running gag called Don Baines (Wilson). Ask Curtin how things are going and he'll tell you: "Like President Roosevelt said, 'Can't kick.'" His client, Arthur Threadgill (Saul Rubinek), has a partner who is skimming company cash and drinking and gambling it away, a scenario that's more pretense than plot. 

The banter between Curtin and his sassy assistant, Lindy (Micaela Diamond), is nearly worth the price of admission and seems to be the point of the piece. The Coens have flexed this particular muscle before, notably in movies like The Hudsucker Proxy and Barton Fink. Diamond (The Cher Show) stands out as the urbane assistant with a lethal dose of moxie, then switches on a dime to play a righteous southern belle in the next play, At the Gazebo

In Natchez, Mississippi, about a hundred years ago, Carter (Sam Vartholomeos) and Dorothy (Diamond) are courting. He's recently been to France, the women and ways of which intimidate Dorothy, who believes we are defined by our limits. Conversation turns to offstage characters, a judge and a young woman who suffered the tragic consequences of an illicit affair. Dialogue flows heavy at first then becomes a torrent of monologues that, in the case of Vartholomeos, come through in a pinched and quiet Southern accent that makes portions indecipherable. If any of the plays have a theme, it might be At the Gazebo, it's just hard to tell what it is.

Jump forward again to the 1950s in The Urbanes, set in what could be Ralph Kramden's apartment from The Honeymooners. Griping about the liver on his plate is not Jackie Gleason but Casella playing a cabbie with a big idea. His long-suffering wife (Miriam Silverman) is out of patience and just about everything else, save for a few choice zingers when it comes to her husband's best laid plans. The only thing that keeps them from tearing at each other are the intermittent cool-down periods enforced by the racket of a passing subway that sets them wordlessly swaying. When trusted pal Joey Falcone (Slotnick) reneges on a deal, Casella's character turns to another friend, Steve Tudick (Ro Boddie), to bail him out, resulting in a cruel lesson on business and friendship. 

Slotnick (The Front Page), makes a hilarious straight man in A Tough Case, where he’s the smartest guy in the room, then convincingly drops 50 IQ points to play Falcone in The Urbanes, which in turn is about 50 points higher than the murderous Wes in The Redeemers. His scene partner in both is Casella (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), who shows us different shades of stupid ranging from redneck to "street smart," playing dull foil in The Urbanes to Silverman's caustic wife. 

Closer to home for the crowd at the Mark Taper Forum is the evening closer, Inside Talk, set in a studio executive's suite. Barton Fink and Intolerable Cruelty skewered Hollywood types as egomaniacs, but the producers here, Lou Wald (Jason Kravits) and Jerry Sterling (Rubinek), seem not just desperate but clueless. They pitch projects back to back to an executive played by Peter Jacobson. One has "Das Boot on a boat," the other a Holocaust-themed rom-com. Assessing screenplays, Wald asks, "How do you know if it's good?" The answer is in a feeling you get "that if another studio makes it, they're not necessarily stupid." And forget about exploring moral issues, "a decent person avoids moral issues," we're assured.

What A Play Is a Poem lacks in depth it compensates for in canny direction and harmonious ensemble performances. Neil Pepe, the artistic director of off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company, has been working with Coen for roughly 11 years, staging his first collection of one-acts, 2008's Almost an Evening, followed by another trio with 2011's Happy Hour. His grasp of Coen's cadences and tone make him a perfect collaborator, intuiting laughs beyond the text in timing, rhythm and attitude. 

Coen's Talking Cure marked his Broadway debut as part of the tepidly received 2011 trilogy, Relatively Speaking, combined with short plays by Woody Allen and Elaine May under the direction of John Turturro. So he's probably not still feeling compelled to conquer the theatrical big time. His first full-length play, the LGBTQ-themed Women or Nothing, also received lukewarm reviews when it premiered in 2013. That makes Coen's theater forays feel like a minor footnote to a career in Hollywood where he and brother Joel have distinguished themselves as two of the most relevant and original filmmakers of their generation. 

Their most recent accolades came with the omnibus Western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which won a screenplay award at the 2018 Venice International Film Festival for its poetic and comedic but mostly tragic mosaic of harsh frontier life underscored throughout by the indifferent dominance of death. In A Play Is a Poem, there is no such binding ligament beyond the often witty wordplay and occasional dark absurdism. Leaving the theater, it's hard not to feel like the quintet of works are not plays but dialogue sketches. To ask what's the point may be pointless. A little laughter and a little song ought to be enough. But with a filmography like that of the Coen brothers, expectations are understandably high. Temper them and you'll probably exit laughing. 

Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
Cast: Ro Boddie, Max Casella, Micaela Diamond, Peter Jacobson, Jason Kravits, Nellie McKay, Saul Rubinek, Miriam Silverman, Joey Slotnick, Sam Vartholomeos, C.J. Wilson
Director: Neil Pepe
Playwright: Ethan Coen
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Music: Nellie McKay
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg

Presented by Center Theatre Group