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Coens on Broadway

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on: January 08, 2008, 12:59:16 AM

A Coen Brother Scales Down to the Stage 
Source: CELIA McGEE; The New York Times

ETHAN COEN tries very hard to ration his conversation. But he has two different laughs.

The first he uses when apparently struggling to discuss three short plays he has written — a singular, and solo, departure for this filmmaker who counts as the younger half of the Coen brothers. He has assertively titled the full evening “Almost an Evening.” Previews start at Atlantic Stage 2 on Wednesday. Neil Pepe directs.

This first laugh signals that a question is unanswerable, not worth answering, inconceivable, inane or metaphysically knotty, and tends to usher in utterances of very... few... words. Primarily “yes,” “yeah,” “well,” “no,” “you know,” “uh,” and “kind of,” and the occasional cowpoke profanity. Mr. Coen, 50, majored in philosophy at Princeton.

“My experience of Ethan,” Mr. Pepe said of rehearsals, “is that he is a man of few words. But I also found that encouraging. He gets right to the point. It’s the way I feel in the presence of playwrights like Harold Pinter or David Mamet.”

Mr. Coen first ventured into theater jointly, with his brother, Joel, two years ago at St. Ann’s Warehouse, following their longtime musical collaborator Carter Burwell’s notion that they should write a double bill of radio play send-ups with the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

Mr. Coen’s second laugh is a real laugh. It happens when, having asked what “macerated” berries on a menu mean, he is told, “It’s what you do to bodies in your movies.”

The actress Elizabeth Marvel received advice about this second one. A member of the cast, which includes F. Murray Abraham, Jonathan Cake, Mark Linn-Baker and Mary McCann, among others, she also stars in the Coens’ forthcoming C.I.A. satire, “Burn After Reading.”

On that set, she said: “I was very nervous in the beginning. I was with all these stars, playing George Clooney’s wife, and it was for the Coen brothers. But I’d been told, if you make them laugh, you’re golden. So I tried, and at one line I saw their shoulders start to go up and down.”

Laughing in the face of the apocalypse and other pesky glitches is also a key to the three plays. “The Debate” features two versions of God who are scrapping, violently; “Waiting” tests the patience of a hell-bound soul; “Four Benches” involves brutal, absurdist spycraft (and full frontal nudity in a cowboy hat).

It leads to “the dark humor of seeing the world as a place where horrible things happen,” said Mr. Burwell, who scored the Coens’ current “No Country for Old Men.” “If you can’t laugh at them, you’re lost.”

The unfamiliarity of theater was one of the appeals for Mr. Coen. “Yeah — it’s like any of these other forms you haven’t tried,” he said. “You do it for the hell of it and to see if you can. I’d done stories and poems” — “Gates of Eden” and “The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way: Poems” — “and I thought this’d be fun.”

Though he is often tagged as a filmmaker’s filmmaker, those who know him were not surprised by this playwriting turn. Lighting out without his brother doesn’t strike his colleagues as strange either. “There’s this image of them being one mind in two bodies,” Mr. Burwell said. “It’s not true.”

Mr. Coen said his brother attended an early reading of the plays, and “seemed to like them.”

Like many works produced at the Atlantic, Mr. Burwell added, “his are also about language, with intellectual arguments.”

Later for such fancy theories, Mr. Coen said. His favorite theatergoing experience of recent years was “Shockheaded Peter,” the family-rated orgy of dismemberment and Victoriana.

As his movie audience might predict, his appreciation of that play’s violence was exceedingly enthusiastic, and that element is not stinted on in “Almost an Evening.”

He said he didn’t know how Mr. Pepe would portray the violence. “I’m kind of curious myself,” he said. “Like technically? But how things happen should also be appalling — not in terms of gore, but of taking a strange turn.”

The plays he prefers are certainly nothing like those that his parents, an economist and an art historian, exposed him to growing up in Minneapolis, with its Guthrie Theater. “The Guthrie was the culture temple,” he said, “and we would be dragged there because it was supposed to be good for us.”

His only appearance onstage, in grade school, made even less of an impact. “I think it was a retelling of the William Tell story, or King Arthur,” he said. Then an expletive. “I can’t remember.”

Arrows. Wood chippers. Whatever.

Different as his plays are from his movies — Ms. Marvel calls these pieces “Beckettian with a goofball twist” — Mr. Burwell said their arc is identifiably Mr. Coen’s.

“It should start with some philosophical premise,” Mr. Burwell said. “Then you move on to contrast that with silly, and occasionally cruel, behavior, and end with a punch line. Ethan loves a philosophical paradox, which he usually inflicts on a character ill-prepared intellectually to deal with it. Yet that’s also the human condition, and exploring it is a valid form of art.”

Known for storyboarding every movie down to the last mukluk, Mr. Coen’s input into the set’s design was extensive, said Riccardo Hernandez, the designer: a “floating stage” within the stage for Mr. Coen’s “Camus meets Kafka meets the Marx Brothers” ideas. “It’s almost like a little existential box that can turn stupidly funny, but is always transforming itself,” he said.

Yet Mr. Coen deep-sixes any suggestion that within the plays themselves — with their disputes about macho carnage versus female sensitivity, death and the afterlife, intrigue and saunas — lurks a gloss on his movies, or their critics.

“No, I wouldn’t say so,” he said. “I see what — no, not only no, but no.”

There might be some memories of high school debating though, he concedes, or Hebrew school.

“Our next movie is all about Hebrew school,” Mr. Coen said, with excitement, “in a big way.” It starts shooting in Minnesota this spring.

Candidly autobiographical, “it’s about a family of four in the Midwest, in 1967,” he said, “and one of the kids is about to be bar mitzvahed. Yes, horrible things happen.”
“Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” - Andy Warhol

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Reply #1 on: April 18, 2008, 05:59:18 PM

Ethan Coen, the quiet man, has an off-Broadway play
By DOUGLAS J. ROWE, AP Entertainment Writer

Ethan Coen the quiet man has lots to say. It just takes awhile before he spits it out. He'll do a version of the Stevie Wonder neck roll, looking around and past you, as if to focus on the improvisational teleprompter of his mind. The answers come slowly at first, punctuated by "Yeah ... yeah." Long pause. Then, an elongated "Yeeeeeeah."

Usually Ethan is the Teller to his brother Joel's Penn in the Coen Brothers moviemaking dynasty.

On this day, he jokes about his typical reticence as he parks himself for late-afternoon coffee at an Italian restaurant in his lower Manhattan neighborhood. "I've got lots to say — depends on the day. Not usually, actually."

And he's eager to engage in a rare interview because the film writer/director/producer/editor wants to talk theater: He's written an off-Broadway play.

Ethan Coen's "Almost an Evening," three one-act plays, has opened at The Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street to warm reviews — which might seem like tepid grits after winning Academy Awards for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay (all with Joel, of course) for "No Country for Old Men."

But ask him what his clutch of Oscars means to him, and he bursts into an asthmatic, snorting, "Revenge-of-the-Nerds" laugh and says: "That was weird. That was a strange evening. It should happen to everyone — once. ... It wears off quickly. ... It gets you high for a couple days."

He kids about needing "a bigger jolt" already.

"I'll have to win the prix de Rome next year or something. Oscars just ain't gonna do it for me anymore. I need the Nobel Peace Prize. The Oscars have worn off, man."

After a moment, he says: "What is the prix de Rome? Is there one? There is one, right?"

Who knows? Who cares? There used to be such a prize — in France from 1663 to 1968. The point is the absurdist sensibility often on display in such Coen brothers movies as "Fargo," "Barton Fink," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "The Big Lebowski."

Ethan Coen's playwrighting debut also qualifies as "darkly loopy" (in the words of one critic).

The first play, "Waiting," has a man enduring what he's told is purgatory; he's told wrong. The second, "Four Benches," focuses on a British spy who wants to become "a people person," especially after causing the death of an innocent man who was an employee of the year for running a feedlot. And in "Debate," God Who Judges and God Who Loves square off at lecterns — until bullets fly. After the last one-act, actors (including Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham) play couples who proceed to deconstruct it.

What was at work there?

"I'll tell you what's at work there. Yeah, all right, I'll tell you. Since you asked. Sometimes, you know, you write 'em with a kind of an idea of where it's going to, what you're doing; sometimes, you write something you have no idea — for the merry hell of it _and you kind of see what'll happen next."

His criterion is "as simple as: What would be fun?"

Coen wants to surprise the audience but not seem arbitrary, and he says his work wasn't aimed at pre-empting or anticipating criticism.

Each of the playlets seemingly are about big, deep ideas, yet they're undeniably played for laughs.

He takes time to ponder the question further.

"I don't know. You know, you kind of play with whatever gets you going," he says, looking off into the distance. "They got to be talking about something, so it might as well be something important."

The Coens' one-time cinematographer, Barry Sonnefeld, who went on to make "Get Shorty" and the "Men in Black" movies, once said: "Topics are incredibly unimportant to them — it's structure and style and words. If you ask them for their priorities, they'll tell you script, editing, coverage and lighting."

Neil Pepe, director of "Almost an Evening," found Coen to be extremely collaborative; Coen was "very very open to getting others' opinions. So it couldn't have really gone better."

For his part, Coen, who is accustomed to directing what he writes, didn't fret putting his words into another director's hands: "I didn't feel like the material was being wrested from me."

Pepe and Coen even talked about the play's marketing and set designs.

"When you first meet Ethan, he comes across as quite quiet," Pepe says. "But once we got into the process, he was very open and collaborative and excited to hear everybody's ideas."

Ethan, 50, and brother Joel, 53, wave off reading too much into their movies. Sometimes a fedora floating in the woods (in "Miller's Crossing") is just a fedora floating in the woods.

Even if their work were worthy of such detailed analysis, Ethan Coen says, "it's not our job to do it, you know."

"I dare you to try with these. I mean, they're pretty patently just comedies," he says about his one-act plays. "They have fun with certain ideas ... but, you know, it's pretty clear that they're just there for the fun to be had from them. Isn't it? I mean, it's pretty clear."

Even though he's published poetry and short stories and has now written plays, Coen says he doesn't particularly want to work on his own. He enjoys the inevitably collaborative medium of film.

"It's not a question of flying solo so much as ... I don't know what it is," he says.
“Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” - Andy Warhol

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Reply #2 on: March 24, 2009, 07:18:34 PM
Ethan Coen returns to off-Broadway with 'Offices'Source: AP

NEW YORK - Ethan Coen is going off-Broadway again.

The Academy Award-winning filmmaker is returning to the Atlantic Theater Company with "Offices," a new collection of one-act plays.

Coen scored a success last season at the Atlantic with "Almost an Evening," another trio of one acts. "It was a good experience, so I'm going to try and repeat it," the filmmaker said in an interview.

"Offices" will open May 7 with preview performances beginning April 15. The 11-person cast will include F. Murray Abraham , John Bedford Lloyd and Mary McCann. The director is Neil Pepe, artistic head of the Atlantic.

Coen said the plays are comedies, but added, with a laugh, "The audience will be the judge of that." They all take place in offices or places of business and involve white-collar workers , he said, and were written before last fall's economic downturn.

"I worked in an office a long time ago ," the playwright explained. "My first job out of college — in fact my only job out of college — was working as an office temp, just to do typing basically."

The first play in "Offices" is called " Peer Review ."

"And you can sort of gather from the title some of what it deals with, Pepe said.

" Homeland Security ," the second play, deals with governmental bureaucracy, while the third is called "Struggle Session."

"The plays have Ethan's incredibly distinct and funny and slightly dark voice ," said Pepe, who directed " Speed-the-Plow " on Broadway this season. "And I also find them to be quite theatrical. It's been a great collaborative process, the beginning of it being last year. We had a great time. And I am excited to get back into it again."

With brother Joel, Coen has made more than a dozen movies including " No Country for Old Men " (2008's best-picture Oscar winner) and "Fargo" as well as " Raising Arizona ," " Barton Fink " and " The Hudsucker Proxy " among others.
“Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” - Andy Warhol

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