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Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of Ethan Coen's A PLAY IS A POEM At Mark Taper Forum?

Review Roundup: What Did the Critics Think of Ethan Coen's A PLAY IS A POEM At Mark Taper Forum?

The world premiere of Ethan Coen's "A Play Is a Poem" officially opened on September 21 at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. Directed by Neil Pepe and presented in association with Atlantic Theater Company, the show plays through October 13.

"A Play Is a Poem" is a new collection of five one acts by Ethan Coen set in the hillbilly hollows of Appalachia, the executive suites of Hollywood, a New York tenement apartment, the smoke-filled office of a Los Angeles private eye and a magnolia-scented gazebo in Natchez, Mississippi. Each place holds a different story - together they offer an eccentric look at life across America that only Ethan Coen could deliver.

The cast includes, in alphabetical order, Ro Boddie, Max Casella, Micaela Diamond, Peter Jacobson, Jason Kravits, Nellie McKay, Saul Rubinek, Miriam Silverman, Joey Slotnick, Sam Vartholomeos and CJ Wilson.

Let's see what the critics are saying!

Jordan Riefe, The Hollywood Reporter: What A Play Is a Poem lacks in depth it compensates for in canny direction and harmonious ensemble performances. Neil Pepe, the artistic director of off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company, has been working with Coen for roughly 11 years, staging his first collection of one-acts, 2008's Almost an Evening, followed by another trio with 2011's Happy Hour. His grasp of Coen's cadences and tone make him a perfect collaborator, intuiting laughs beyond the text in timing, rhythm and attitude.

Clark Collis, EW: 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.

Peter Debruge, Variety: As it turns out, Coen seems to be thinking less of poetry than the tradition of O. Henry stories, with their last-minute twists, packing a modest breakthrough, droll realization or parting irony into the final 60 seconds of each segment. "When does it get easy?" asks the weary brother of the first entry. In Coen's universe, it never does - for his characters at least. For Coen himself, playwriting represents a fresh challenge, although going from indie outsider to Oscar winner has smoothed the path, providing him with a stage for these frivols, and an audience to devour them.

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times: All of this is to say that a play can indeed be poem. But "A Play Is a Poem" is a pretentious title for such hackwork. Coen writes one-acts in the hoary tradition of vignettes, sketches, curtain-raisers. The closest these five playlets come to Beckett is in the refusal of meaning to turn up. Were it not for the filmmaking allure of the Coen name, it's hard to imagine the Taper bothering at all with these exercises in artistic self-indulgence.

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