Theater Review: A PLAY IS A POEM (World Premiere by Ethan Coen at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles)

by Samuel Garza Bernstein on September 25, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles

Post image for Theater Review: A PLAY IS A POEM (World Premiere by Ethan Coen at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles)


Ethan Coen’s A Play Is a Poem at the Mark Taper Forum strikes me as neither a poem, nor, strictly speaking, theater. I don’t know what it is. For the most part the five short playlets come across as sketches — and not in a good way. Coen attempts to project the audiences into startlingly different situations and time periods, but each scene emerges as pastiche rather than something with a fresh point of view.

Some of the lines crackle, such as a noir-ish piece where a gorgeous dame quips, “I’m a torch singer, people pay me to complain.” But that’s a line any number of writers could have written (and someone might have) in a film of the era. And while that line is memorable, most are not. They just feel vaguely right without revealing anything we don’t already see from the characters’ behavior. So we’re ahead of Coen much of the time.

The actors are first-rate. And singer/musician Nellie McKay supplies droll commentary between scenes. She is startlingly alive as she plays piano, ukulele and xylophone and sings in a pure, rangy voice that evokes all the mystery that the scenes struggle to find.

I have no idea why these five tales are arranged in this particular order or what they may have in common, if anything. There is no moment of illumination — just a somewhat sophomoric sense of self-involvement and self-congratulations. That might be the most show-bizzy thing about it. If Coen weren’t an Oscar-winner no theater would have a reason to stage this muddled play, poem, series of sketches, or whatever the hell it is.

photos by Craig Schwartz

A Play Is a Poem
Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum
Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave
ends on October 13, 2019
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG

{ 1 comment }

Leslie October 6, 2019 at 7:29 am

Agree! No purpose or message for the audience to chew on. But Nellie McKay is a gem and might be worth the ticket price.

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