Five short plays, meant to create a pastiche of Americana comprise Ethan Coen’s A Play is a Poem, and it’s having its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum.
Featuring a wonderful ensemble cast, clever Coen-esque dialogue, and a scene-stealing musician, some of the moments find true theatrical footing, while others meander, and stall- enraptured, but static in eloquent language that sometimes overwhelms the dramatic action, even so much as to leave us bereft of conflict or any trackable character arc.
The most successful of the five pieces, theatrically, has to be The Redeemers which is the very first short play of the evening. It’s also, unfortunately, the shortest. And while its simplicity comes dangerously close to sketch comedy, it has a built-in style and mood, a tone that is indelibly Coen. And it leans into its own overtness, the effect of which is hugely entertaining. Using humor, violence, and morality the characters are broad, yet specific, and it’s a fun way to begin the evening. The only problem with starting the show with such a bang- and forewarning, there are gunshots in this show, and they are loud! Maybe the loudest I’ve ever heard in a theater. But the subsequent pieces suffer a little from the curse of have such a tough act to follow. None of them can capture the energy, nor the ferocity of this one.
The next three plays all strangely enough have the same strengths and weaknesses. First of all, they are all set in the past. The first, A Tough Case, is a kind of Noir-lite slash 1930s comedy about a detective agency. It feels like it’s running toward a gimmicky conclusion, what with the easy jokes and back and forth banter, but it mostly stays at the starting gate. The episodic nature, which include blackouts- which four of the five plays utilize over and over again- had the opening night crowd breaking into a smattering of applause every few minutes. A word about these blackouts: And truly just one word…Why?
At the Gazebo, which is the third play, is the most confounding. It’s also the most loquacious. And while the two actors that shoulder the majority of the dialogue- Sam Vartholomeos and Micaela Diamond are interesting to watch, it moves too slowly because the stakes are too low and their interactions rely on the language more than the underlying actions. It felt as if they were playing the words and not the intentions. And I get it, the words are pretty great. But it’s hard to continuously track.
The Urbanes takes place in New York City I wanna say at least fifty years ago, and is almost reminiscent of The Honeymooners. With the loud and demanding husband (Max Casella) and the put-upon wife (Miriam Silverman) who always has an insult at the ready. The story is about opportunity, opportunism, and the collapse of the American dream. This might be too deep an analysis, for this play is honestly the one that does suffer the sketch comedy fate. Save for the ending, where a bird on a ledge might actually be a kind of philosophical deus ex machina, this play could be the result of an imrov class exercise.
These three middle plays, as I said, all suffer from the same downside. They all feel untimely. Not in theme, but in presentation. The generic theatrical staging and back-and-forth between characters has nothing new to add to the conversation, only remnants of what playwrights used to do. And the stories too, by setting them in the past, and then staging them accordingly, director Neil Pepe has kind of sterilized the thematic development. It can’t grow because it’s too boxed in, trying to join a conversation that’s just not relevant anymore.
The final play of the evening, Inside Talk, is the most ineffective. It’s too easy, it’s too episodic, and there are too many blackouts. While the topic is a valid and funny look at Hollywood and the nonsense that goes into making movies, the result is a tepid, almost innocuous response to the Me Too and Times Up movements. Where punchlines take the place of actual conversation. It wants to be a kind of satire, but it’s closer to a comic strip. Ethan Coen is such a gifted writer that his punchlines nearly save the piece from itself and if only he could free himself from the constraints of the medium, which, for some bewildering reason, he has created, his words could explode into a dynamic and exciting theatrical experience. But alas, there is no explosion, only a few crackles here and there, and a whole lot of old-fashioned ideas. Which is a shame. Truly, I hold Joel Coen to the standard that he has created for himself; he is a genius filmmaker, one of the absolute best. Therefore, this writer and this cast really should have achieved theatrical gold. The title itself tells us that we are about to encounter subtext, a poem is always about what’s underneath the language, and so too should dramatic writing. These pieces are far too focused on surface-level banter, humor, and one-liners to really allow for any exegesis.
On a final note, Nellie McKay, who provides musical interludes between each play, is a true delight, she nearly steals the show. With her original music, that is at once melancholic, sweet, and tragic- she is the one thing that comes the closest to nailing the essence of America.
A Play is a Poem
By Ethan Coen
Directed by Neil Pepe
Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum
135 N. Grand Ave. Downtown LA 90012