With all due respect to Ethan Coen, a poem is a poem, a play is a play, and “A Play Is a Poem” isn’t much of either, although that doesn’t make this 105-minute evening at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum a failure so much as a case of false advertising. This isn’t the first time Coen has written for the stage, although he seems to be most comfortable with one-act sketches, which is more or less what we get here: five short theater pieces, stitched together with curious musical interludes (the only common thread, apart from the rotating ensemble of 10), in which Coen projects audiences into different situations and time periods.
Coen, of course, represents one half of the off-off-Hollywood hermanos responsible for “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men,” and this project appears to be something to keep Ethan busy while brother Joel is off directing a film version of “Macbeth” by himself. Early in the Coens’ filmmaking career, Ethan shared only screenwriting credit, while Joel was billed as the director, and while it’s tough to separate how the duo work together, it’s been clear over the years that Ethan enjoys other forms of writing as well. He penned a collection of short stories, “Gates of Eden,” a couple volumes of poetry, as well as three separate theater pieces — “Almost an Evening,” “Offices” and “Happy Hour,” each consisting of three short plays — for the Atlantic Theater Company in New York.
Now, Neil Pepe, who directed each of those productions, has traveled West, with Ethan, to stage the world premiere of five new scriptlets, which feel more like writing exercises than anything intended to see the light of day. The same show would almost certainly be savaged in New York, where audiences expect more from the theater, but that tradition doesn’t occupy the same cultural space in Los Angeles, where “A Play Is a Poem” might be perceived not as falling short of the medium’s potential, but rather as a kind of jaunty, amusing alternative to more serious drama — a lighter use of the space, and a rather glamorous entry in Center Theatre patrons’ season passes.
Until now, Angelenos had to travel to catch any of Coen’s stage outings, so at the very least, “A Play Is a Poem” ought to satisfy their curiosity as to how the writer acquits himself in this new arena. Once again, Coen displays his facility for conjuring lively characters from the first few distinctive lines of dialogue out of their mouths — the delight is in the delivery, and these actors are up to the challenge — and for coaxing unlikely laughs from situations where humor feels inappropriate, even illicit, making us complicit in a kind of deliciously disrespectful sacrilege.
As in his short fiction, Coen leans on generic scenarios to establish a dynamic that audiences recognize at once — a film noir detective agency, a studio executive’s office in Hollywood — then twists them in sly and entertaining ways. The opening segment, entitled “The Redeemers” (following a bit of Brechtian pantomime by musician Nellie McKay, who serves as a kind of lounge singer/emcee), feels like a country-fried “Blood Simple” scenario, or maybe the next-to-last scene in a Martin McDonagh play, involving a bloody ax, a beheaded father figure and three siblings of various minds about how to react. Judging by the accent, Max Casella seems to be modeling his backwoods caricature on Tim Blake Nelson, recently seen playing Buster Scruggs in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” — another loose collection of pithy dramatic pieces, although far more unified and engaging than this particular assortment.
After a brief return from McKay, who alternates between piano, ukulele and xylophone during the scene breaks, Casella’s two co-stars reappear in the next segment, which could be confusing for anyone not clear that the evening is comprised of separate stories. “A Tough Case” centers on a private investigator (Joey Slotnick) adapting the business to accommodate a bumbling new partner (CJ Wilson). The mystery isn’t terribly interesting, but the banter fizzes, to the extent we hardly notice that the gumshoe in question hardly sets a flatfoot out of the office.
Most of the show is done with minimal sets or props, making small changes to a blank brick wall behind the actors to indicate the setting. And then comes “At the Gazebo,” which feels like the longest segment and, in keeping with the perverse tradition of anthology productions, winds up being the most taxing. For no clear reason, this bit demands an overlarge and unnecessary gazebo, rolled out from backstage to loom over a young Southern couple (Sam Vartholomeos and Micaela Diamond), who politely speak of topics too delicate to be addressed directly in Natches, Miss. It’s a chance for Coen to practice one of his preferred techniques: talking around a thing, rather than naming it outright — which is a common enough theatrical affectation, but in this case, zaps whatever pep the show had previously established.
“The Urbanes” takes place in a New York apartment, where a cabbie (Casella) and his wife (Miriam Silverman) argue about his latest schemes, interrupting the insults every time an elevated train noisily passes their window. It’s cute, but feels like something stolen from Elaine May or Woody Allen — writers who joined Coen in contributing one-acts to the 2011 anthology piece, “Relatively Speaking.” The final sketch, “Inside Talk,” will seem familiar to anyone in Los Angeles, being a benign satire of big-studio indecision that assumes a modest sting of #MeToo indignation in the final minutes.
Why these five stories? Why present them in this particular order? And what do they ostensibly have in common? These are mysteries without any clear or especially illuminating answer, but then, the same could be said of life, and they do all share Coen’s trademark sense of existential bemusement — that life is tough, people do crazy and irrational things, and in the end, none of us really knows how to find the calm or solace that all men seek. Such wry meaning-of-life concerns, sprinkled liberally throughout Coen’s oeuvre, have traditionally been the ingredient that beckons audiences to read deeper meaning into superficially absurdist situations.
“I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper,” the pregnant police chief says at the end of “Fargo,” adding, “There’s more to life than money, you know. … And it’s a beautiful day.” As it turns out, Coen seems to be thinking less of poetry than the tradition of O. Henry stories, with their last-minute twists. As such, each segment packs a modest breakthrough, droll realization or parting irony into the final 60 seconds. “When does it get easy?” asks the weary brother of the first entry. In Coen’s universe, it never does — for his characters at least. For Coen himself, playwriting represents a fresh challenge, although going from indie outsider to Oscar winner has smoothed the path, providing him with a stage for these frivols, and an audience to devour them.