Writer/Director Ethan Coen, along with brother Joel, is famous for his risk-taking screenplays, both horrific and amusing. But he has been writing short plays for some time, apparently, and five of them are onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre.
Directed by long-time collaborator Neil Pepe, the uneven evening of both drama and comedy (sometimes simultaneously) covers a lot of terrain, from early 20th Century Mississippi romance, to 1940s public-investigator satire, to contemporary hillbilly evil-folk killing each other, to a lower-class NYC tenement apartment, to major Hollywood producers (which got the most intense laughter from the knowing opening-night audience).
Well-staged and well-acted, the two-hours or so (sans intermission) has a unit set (by Riccardo Hernández) which is adaptable to each of the different plays.
The show is beautifully mounted on all levels with the company rising to the occasion when the writing , such as in “The Gazebo” with handsome Sam Vartholomeos and noble Micaela Diamond debating the early 20th Century possibility of a romantic alliance between them going on far too long for too small a payoff, potholed as it is with elegant and languid language that ends up being exasperating).
The best of the five plays, “The Redeemers,” opens the show, in which three brothers, two of whom having just committed a gruesome murder, are caught by their cop brother, which hilariously ends up matching the description of the killings.
“Inside Talk,” as noted above, got the most attention by its insider (which Oscar-winner Coen certainly is) look at how intellectually corrupting big showbiz projects can be. Amusing and unsettling it is.
Admirable as the evening is, and as entertaining as it is frustrating, the ensemble certainly deserves high marks:Max Casella, Joey Slotnick, CJ Wilson, Sal Rubinek, Peter Jacobson, Ro Boddie, Miriam Silverman and Jason Kravits, as well as Vartholomeos and Diamond, support Coen’s ironic and iconic bleakness, mostly leveled with biting humor, which does make for strong theater, along with the witty songs and singing of Nellie McKay. Fun the evening is, but ideally, the weaker plays will get needed re-writes for their next lives.
When: “A Play is a Poem” plays through October 13th
Where: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, Grand Avenue at Temple Street, downtown L.A.
Tickets: (213) 628-2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org