Despite delivering several productions in the last decade, it’s unlikely anyone associates the name Ethan Coen with theater.
Over the past four decades, Ethan, alongside his brother Joel, has cemented their reputations in the movie industry. As a duo, the Coen brothers have earned four Best Picture Oscar nominations and one win (No Country for Old Men), and a string of critical hits starring Hollywood royalty.
Screen success has helped open the stage door for Coen, who has crafted one full-length play and four evenings of one-acts, including his latest, the somewhat intriguing and often funny A Play is a Poem. The play debuted at Downtown’s Mark Taper Forum on Sept. 21.
The 105-minute intermissionless show features five geographically and tonally disparate tales. It is directed by the Coens’ longtime collaborator Neil Pepe and runs through Oct. 13.
Much of what makes a Coen brothers movie successful — smart, snappy dialogue and moral ambiguity — is on full display in some of the evening’s strongest sections, but each piece lacks cohesion, which makes A Play is a Poem feel more like, well, a series of poems rather than individual plays. They are carefully crafted moments that don’t worry about resolution, akin to walking into a multiplex cinema and jumping from screen to screen mid-movie.
Locale and time period change with each blackout, but if there’s an overall theme it’s loss of a loved one and its lasting impact of those who remain.
The impact in the The Redeemers contrasts starkly from the other plays, as sons Cal (Max Casella) and Wes (frequent Coen actor Joey Slotnick), have “lost” their father by murdering him. Perhaps difficult to imagine, the first and shortest of the stories is by far the funniest. In Fargo-like fashion, killing and violence have been twisted for comic fodder, such as the explanation of why dear old dad’s head and leg had to be cut off to make room to hide the body.
Cut mid-scene, The Redeemers gives way to A Tough Case, Coen’s dead-pan take on noir. In the vein of The Maltese Falcon, Slotnick portrays a Humphrey Bogart-styled private eye, who has an endless supply of quick quips, a tough secretary (Micaela Diamond) who holds his cigarette while they kiss, and a deceased partner he hopes to replace with a not-so-impressive simpleton (CJ Wilson).
A Tough Case features musical artist Nellie McKay as a torch song pianist, who also performs songs between each play — each more fascinating than the last. A cabaret star for years, McKay’s mix of somber and sarcastic tunes are the show’s highlights.
At the Gazebo, set in Natchez, Mississippi, in what appears to be the early 1900s, is a study in impressive period-style dialogue, but as the longest and slowest play its drags the tempo and doesn’t deliver an emotional payoff.
Coen returns to paying homage to well-known tropes with The Urbanes, which feels like he lifted a plot straight from “The Honeymooners.” It’s followed by Inside Talk, a satirical look at how movies get greenlit that surely will play better in Los Angeles than other venues.
Most of the cast appears in more than one play, and each performer is impressive and effortless in their transformation. It’s Slotnick who stands out, though, as his humor and delivery seamlessly match Coen’s dialogue.
Pepe’s direction fits each locale and time with simple shifts in pace — from the frenetic Redeemers to the lilting Gazebo — and the insertion of McKay’s songs makes each transition something to enjoy rather than endure.
The minimal set by Riccardo Hernandez allows for quick transformation, relying on Tyler Micoleau’s lighting to set the mood, such as the extreme shadows of a murder scene and the glow of a sunny summer in the South.
A Play is a Poem may frustrate anyone looking for character growth, story resolution or overall depth. Instead, this charming, if uneven, pastiche provides a few laughs and clever word play. It won’t damage Coen’s lofty reputation, but he’s still likely to be considered a brilliant filmmaker who dabbles in theater.
A Play is a Poem runs through Oct. 13 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. or centertheatregroup.org.