A Little Coen Craziness at the Mark Taper ☆☆☆

“A Play Is a Poem” is a collection of vignettes that span time and place for some odd bits of conversation and quirky twists that have come to be the hallmark of Ethan Coen when he is teamed with his brother Joel for films. The 90-minute production “A Play Is a Poem” is five unrelated scenes with musician Nellie McKay singing and playing original compositions on the on-stage black baby grand piano or a guitar to bridge the action and cover the transitions.

The Coen Brothers are famous for movies like the 1996 “Fargo,” the 1998 “The Big Lebowski,” the 2007 “No Country for Old Men,” the 2010 “True Grit” and last year’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” While the Coens have won Academy Awards, BAFTA Awards and Golden Globes, he’s yet to have received any theatrical awards of note. Still, this trifle makes for an enjoyable evening.

When you enter, the stage is bare except for a piano to one side. The back wall is brick and appears solid, but doors will open, windows will appear and the wall will even open in order to transport us to different scenes.

If you’re a fan of “Fargo,” you’ll like “The Redeemers” which opens the bill. Aggrieved brothers, Cal (Max Casella) and Wes (Joey Slotnick), discuss dealing with their unseen father, a man who was neither kind nor well loved.

L-R: Sam Vartholomeos and Micaela Diamond in the world premiere of “A Play Is a Poem.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.
L-R: Joey Slotnick and Saul Rubinek in the world premiere of “A Play Is a Poem.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

In “A Tough Case,” Ed Curtain (Joey Slotnick) has a problem with the death of his partner, his rather dim-witted new partner and an assortment of clients. Coen used colorful phrases for each turning of the door knob and client taking a seat.

“At the Gazebo,” takes us to a man, Carter (Sam Vartholomeos), and a woman, Dorothy (Micaela Diamond), at a gazebo discussing differences in love and a changing world view.

“The Urbanes” involves a cabbie (Max Casella) and his wife (Miriam Silverman) who live near the subway. The pauses because of the passing trains is part of the well-timed humor, but this cabbie has big plans, but needs a partner. As with “A Tough Case,” finding the right partner isn’t easy.

The last scenario, “Inside Talk, is one that is likely well known to Coen and many people in the audience. A movie executive is getting pitched a variety of ridiculous movie scripts from an industrious writer and finally the executive gets to meet the writer.

There was plenty to amuse although there were times when the sound production and timing resulted in the lines not all being clearly heard. One hopes that director Neil Pepe will clean that up in the future. McKay’s lyrics are amusing enough adding to the slightly off-kilter feel of the production. This slightly uneven bill is still a lovely moment of theater.

“A Play Is a Poem” runs through Oct. 13, 2019 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Tickets are $25 to $110. Call (213) 972-4400  or visit centertheatregroup.org.

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