Playwright Ethan Coen fears he's selling out
NEW YORK — Ethan Coen, nursing a black coffee in a midtown cafe at the end of a busy workday, is in no mood for compliments.
Don’t dare suggest, for example, that he might be growing as a playwright just because after years of making one-act plays he’s just delivered his first full-length work for the stage.
“That’s a hurtful thing to say to somebody — I don’t think I’m growing,” said Coen, half of the successful moviemaking Coen brothers and only half-joking. “That sounds terrible.”
It quickly becomes clear that a chat with Coen will veer into the surreal, just as many of his films do. He’s an introvert with a fondness for dark humor and a precise turn of phrase. He also might mess with you.
David Cromer, who directs Coen’s new play, “Women or Nothing,” and has been a huge fan of the Coen brothers’ “Fargo,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “The Big Lebowski,” says meeting his idol wasn’t a disappointment.
“He’s everything you want him to be — this fascinating, hilarious, shambling, angry writer,” Cromer said. “I was around someone who slung words really, really beautifully.”
“Women or Nothing” opens Monday.
Coen, who turns 56 this month, has been writing plays for more than a decade but never tackled a full work until now. “It’s recreational. It’s part-time,” he said. “I’m a play hobbyist. I’m a gentleman playwright.”
His works until now have been mostly collections of bite-sized, noir one-act plays — exploring loathing in the workplace, fear of death, mixed romantic signals or the terminally lost.
He has packaged them — three to a pop — in “Almost an Evening,” “Offices” and “Happy Hour,” for the well-respected Atlantic Theater Company, which is producing the new one. He also contributed a playlet to the Broadway production of “Relatively Speaking” in 2011. (“My trip uptown,” he calls it.)
Why he began writing plays is a mystery, even to the playwright. “I don’t know why. You know, it’s kind of like doing movies. You see a movie and you go, ‘OK, I can try one of those. Maybe I could do that,’” he said. “It’s the same impulse: that would be fun.”
Coen is balancing work on “Women or Nothing,” which opens this month, with putting the finishing touches on his and brother Joel’s next movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the story of a singer-songwriter in the 1960s New York folk music scene.
One project he’s largely staying out of is a TV version of his film “Fargo” that’s being produced by FX. The Coens are associated with the series but aren’t being very hands-on.
No characters will be carried over from the movie, which Coen thinks is a good idea, since some ended up in a wood-chipper. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “Some of them have been radically disassembled.”
The latest four-person play began forming in his mind over the past year and just happened to turn into a full-length work. It’s the story of a lesbian couple desperate to have a child who must woo a potential father and calm a meddling mother. Is he exploring how messy life can be?
“Is it exploring that? I don’t know. It sounds like somebody who is growing would explore something like that. It exploits that for its comic potential,” he said, then added for emphasis: “resolutely not growing.”
It also turned out to be something that makes Coen slightly ill at ease: commercial. He’s been listening to the audience at intermission and people seem to be enjoying themselves, a rare occurrence at his plays.
“It’s weirdly a kind of boulevard comedy or abject sellout, depending on your point of view,” he says. “Although we can’t say it’s an abject sellout until it sells out and proves I have successfully sold out.”
Cromer, the director, says the play is deceptive — it obeys the rules of a light comedy until suddenly it doesn’t. He found in the script “the most interesting conversation I’d ever read and the most interesting sort of love scene I’d ever read. It was just something really original in the form of something that’s not original.”
Coen, who clearly is not growing, may have a hit on his hands. The play has already been extended and a woman came up to him and asked if the rights to produce it were available in Brazil.
He played hard-to-get. “I said, ‘Yes, as far as I know. Let me check,’” Coen recalled. “It’s kind of a trip if it gets done somewhere else in a version that I have no idea what the hell they’re doing. It’s funny at the level of a weird thought experiment, which is kind of what it is.”