Filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen could have cast one of their starriest movies to date just by plucking former collaborators from the opening-night audience of A Play is a Poem: Brad Pitt, Josh Brolin, John Goodman, William H. Macy, and singer Aimee Mann (who played a toe-sacrificing nihilist in the pair’s stoner-noir classic The Big Lebowski) all came out to witness the world premiere of the Ethan Coen-written work at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. The presence of these bold-face names was a real-world reminder of the siblings’ penchant for genre-hopping, from the black-comedy of the Pitt-featuring Burn After Reading to the grim neo-Western vibes of the Brolin-starring No Country For Old Men. Similarly, the five short plays which comprise the performance show off their author’s willingness to follow his eclectic muse rather than worry about presenting a cohesive whole.
Coen opens proceedings deep in the grimly comedic territory of Fargo, though the first play, The Redeemers, actually takes place in Appalachia. Max Casella and Joey Slotnick play two siblings with a recently-deceased body on their hands; C.J. Wilson is a third sibling, a cop, who turns up at just the wrong moment. Slotnick and Wilson return for the next tale, A Tough Case, as a pair of private detectives, with Wilson’s gumshoe not so much hardboiled as desperately undercooked, intelligence-wise. The pair are tasked by Saul Rubinek’s businessman with looking into the possibly fraudulent behavior of his partner. As with The Redeemers, Coen and director Neil Pepe ensure a satisfactory amount of comedic mayhem ensues, but also in this case a deep note of melancholy, as Rubinek considers whether having a terrible partner may be better than the lonely alternative of not having one at all.
The play which really sticks out like a sore thumb — or severed toe — is the third, At the Gazebo. Set in the historical South (specifically Natchez, Mississippi) the story essentially consists of chats between Micaela Diamond’s Dorothy and Sam Vartholomeos’s Carter, who seems obsessed with an ex-flame. The result seems light on humor, and most other attributes, though it is this writer’s experience that initially disappointing material from the Coens often rises through the ranks upon repeat viewing.
Coen returns to more obviously comedic material for his last two stories, The Urbanes and Inside Talk. The former comes across like a Death of a Salesman parody as Casella’s New-York-tenement-apartment-dwelling cabbie attempts to secure a taxi medallion while meeting with scorn, derision, and overcooked liver from his wife (Miriam Silverman). Inside Talk is a nifty Hollywood satire with Peter Jacobson’s movie executive trying to decide between a couple of projects: “Das Boot on a boat” or a “Boy-meets-girl-Auschwitz thing.”
Of the latter’s screenplay, Jacobson’s character is at one point moved to comment, “This may be the worst script I’ve ever read!” to which Rubinek’s producer Jerry Sterling retorts, “That’s a very unfocused note.” A Play is a Poem frequently crackles with such dialogue which, together with the many terrific performances from the ten-person cast, help make up for the venture’s rather hodgepodge nature. Moreover, a fine frame is provided by singer-songwriter Nellie McKay who performs interstitial tunes of an entertainingly sardonic nature. Much like the rug of Jeff Bridges’ Dude did for his room in The Big Lebowski, McKay’s performances really do tie the whole evening together.