Here is the question: What would you think if you saw “A Play is a Poem” and did not know it was written by Ethan Coen? If you had been living under a rock and had never heard of the Coen brothers? Or had you not seen any of their films? Those questions kept playing through my mind, shoving aside the issues of why five short plays under one roof? And why call the roof “A Play is a Poem?” In other words, I left the Taper, mildly amused and mildly entertained, but scratching my head. My last question is, why doesn’t Michael Ritchie insist that directors view the action from all over the theater, not simply from fifth row center?
In an interview Ethan Coen said there was no real connection between this group of five one acts. The program tells us it is a “cross-country cross-section of American theatrical history.” Okay … Maybe? You be the judge.
Action is kicked off by “the Redeemers.” Two hillbilly brothers are debating the disposal of a body. It is currently in pieces, under the floorboards. The probability of a tell tale odor is a near certainty. They are joined by a third brother, the sheriff (the relationship between the three does strain credibility). This is not a politically correct piece. Forget the rough but loving family and sense of community you might have conjured up after reading “Hillbilly Elegy.” ‘Deplorables’ comes more easily to mind. The accents are heavy and actors are often turned away making them difficult to understand.
“A Tough Case” is set in the office of a private eye looking to fill the place of his murdered partner. It brings to mind 30’s and 40’s detective stories à la Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett – references to local streets tie the action to Los Angeles. Coen does have an ear for this kind of tinny, old time dialogue.
And then comes “At The Gazebo,” set around the turn of the last century, awash in Natchez dialect so thick I could hear the mosquitos buzzing past my ears. Maybe that is what made it so hard to understand. Dapper, white suited Carter (Sam Vartholomeos) has returned from living in Paris where he retreated when his local squeeze had a nervous breakdown. You know what wild images come to mind when you think of Parisian life. Mon dieu. Dorothy (Micaela Diamond), whom he seems to be wooing, maybe, does not even want to wrap her pretty little head or bodice around that one. She is more comfortable poking aspersions at him regarding the cause of her friend’s breakdown.
Moving right along. “The Urbanes” is set in mid-century Brooklyn. It’s a cramped kitchen which shakes periodically as the El thunders by. The husband has a scheme; that is if only he can get a knife through the damned liver he is trying to eat. Nice try, complaining to his wife; he cooked it himself. They bicker, his scheme falls through twice. Life looks as bleak for them as it does for each of the characters in the previous vignettes. We laugh at them, but there is nothing new to report.
Hang in there if you are having trouble with continuity. Honestly, it is not me. The final one act, “Inside Talk,” rings the truest. Set in the office of a studio head two washed up hacks are each trying to pitch a barely formed idea. The pitches are strangely similar. It is the Hollywood trope done to a tee. What is the relationship to the other four vignettes? Beats me. But it was the best although it left me confused. What was it doing here? Maybe Coen got it so right because it is territory he personally knows.
How can it be claimed “A Play is a Poem” is a “cross-country” view of American history if 40% is set within 10 or 15 miles of the Taper stage? So many questions. So few answers. These five playlets in search of an author have left me puzzled. The best I can do is to say they are five stanzas. It is still poor poetry.
Not everyone loved the film, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” another Coen anthology, but a careful viewing reveals continuity in terms of themes. All were set in the West, in the style of old Hollywood, and despite the frequent humorous jabs there was an undercurrent of death. One character in “A Play is a Poem” says “Death is always in the thing, even in the germ,” but the scripts did not support it. Scrubbs was a cobbling together of six shorts bound in an imaginary book. The pages turn and each story has a faceplate. In “A Play is a Poem” the transition for scenery changes is accompanied by the delightful voice, piano, ukulele, and xylophone of Nellie McKay coming from various positions in the theater. What can I say but thank heaven for charming and talented Nellie McKay? Pretty sad when the scene changes are better than the substance.
Not every effort by a well known author is worth it, even when parts amuse and parts entertain. Without the halo effect of the Coen brothers film oeuvre “A Play is a Poem” does not stand alone. Some scripts are better left in the drawer.