Tuesday, October 8, 2019

A Play is Not a Movie: Ethan Coen Discovers the Stage

No one does macabre and quirky like the brothers Coen. I’ve been a fan since their very first film, Blood Simple, back in 1984. I love the comedy of Raising Arizona, the poignance of Inside Llewyn Davis, the grim high seriousness of No Country for Old Men, the sheer goofiness of The Big Lebowski. I particularly cherish Fargo (1996) as perhaps the most superlative blending of the Coens’ various moods and talents.

Given that both Coens have so spectacularly succeeded (over the last 35 years) as writers, directors, and editors of motion pictures, it’s not surprising to see them branching out in other artistic directions. Recently Ethan Coen has been trying his hand at playwriting, exploring a new medium that’s perhaps not as flexible as film. The Mark Taper Forum, a semi-adventurous theatre space at the Los Angeles Music Center, has recently premiered a suite of Coen’s short plays, under the umbrella title, “A Play is a Poem.” The city’s number-one theatre critic, Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times, came down extra-hard on this effort, essentially advising Coen to stick to movies and suggesting that the theatre was wasting time and money by giving one of its coveted slots to a production because it was fronted by a big Hollywood name  I myself was somewhat less critical, and yet I can’t deny that the five playlets are slight indeed, mostly skits of various degrees of interest united by no common theme or thread.

The Coen film most recently in theatres is 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a collection of six vignettes, some of them based on existing tales of the Old West by such authors as Jack London.  Maybe this is part of a new trend for the Coens: producing short, punchy dramatic pieces rather than making the effort to sustain a longer, more complex narrative.  But though the episodes in Buster Scruggs reflect different moods, ranging from the comic to the eerie, they are unified by their western setting and by an ongoing fascination with the abrupt end of life. A Play is a Poem is a far different matter. Each of these plays takes place in a different environment and requires a different (and often cartoonish) accent. “The Redeemers” is a dark, gruesome tale featuring some hillbilly yokels and leading the audience to a collective groan as the lights go out. “A Tough Case” is a kind of film noir parody featuring a fast-talking detective à la Sam Spade. In “At the Gazebo,” the accents are 19th century Southern, and the dialogue is so repetitious that (I admit it!) I nodded off midway through. The Southern belle and her would-be beau of this playlet are replaced in “The Urbanes” by New Yawkers struggling with their kitchen-sink lives (I did love the rattle of the El repeatedly going by their grimy window.)

The last of the plays, “Inside Talk,” was my favorite, because it trades upon Coen’s inside knowledge of the ways of Hollywood. Its central figure is a movie exec contending with two would-be producers trying to sell him on their various projects. One proposes “Das Boot on a Boat,” overlooking the fact that the original took place on a World War II submarine. The second hypes “Sobibor, Mon Amour,” a romcom with flashbacks to the Holocaust. Priceless to me was the exec’s disdain for the screenwriter’s perspective on all this: “What does the writer know? If he knew anything, he wouldn’t be a writer.” This casual dismissal of the writer as unimportant is classic Hollywood thinking. As, of course, the Coens know all too well. 

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