It has to be gratifying — if not downright fortifying! — to commence your career as a playwright on the very same day you are nominated for three Academy Awards.
This happy happenstance occurred on Jan. 22 when the trio of darkly ditzy playlets that constitute Ethan Coen's Almost an Evening world-premiered at Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2. At the play's opening, a well-wisher rushed up to Coen with a warm "Welcome to the theatre!" Without pausing a beat, he shot back: "Another life ruined!"
Hardly, and hardly him. "It was just a cheap gag," he admits, and no, he's not avoiding the theatre. "I'm in the movie business. It's not like anything could be more frivolous."
In the interim, Coen and his taller, older brother Joel won three-for-three in the Oscar race for their "No Country for Old Men" (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay) — and his newly minted Life in the Theatre hasn’t done shabbily, either: Almost an Evening sold out every single preview and performance of its five-week run — prior to its premiere! — and has subsequently gone into extra innings for a limited gig at the Bleecker Street Theatre. This quirky threesome had critics invoking the names of Beckett and Mamet, but for the record, Coen says, "I've never seen any Beckett, although he has a splendid reputation — so I'll take it. Mamet — I've actually seen a bunch of his stuff, and he makes me laugh. I'm not aware of any kinship with him." But it was the reps of David Mamet and Coen actor William H. Macy, Atlantic's founding fathers, that prompted him to pick this particular theatre company to mark his stage debut — and its artistic director, Neil Pepe, to direct it.
It is extremely rare for a Coen work to be directed by someone else, but the debuting playwright wasn't nervous. "Not really. We talked. I liked Neil immediately. One of the great things about Neil is his lack of ego. I had as much input as I wanted at rehearsals. I felt free to say to him whatever I wanted, and he felt free to tell me when he thought I was full of crap. It was an ideal relationship.
"I had something to say to everybody about everything, and, y'know, they deferred to me or not, depending on their point of view, but it was just good to be able to say what I thought, and I hope it was useful in some cases. It was just a good experience because everybody was open to it. They had more experience than me, and that was useful, too."
So, is the 50-year-old, born-anew playwright up for seconds? You'd better believe it: "I just turned in three more to Pepe — again, three short ones — another compendium thing. I'll have to think of a title. Almost an Evening, Again? Getting Really Close to an Evening?"