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?”
‘Darkly loopy’ debutWho 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.”
‘Very open and collaborative’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.