After more than two decades in the unbreakable filmmaking unit known as the Coen brothers, Ethan Coen—slight and boyish at 51—meets me for breakfast, looking eager to discuss his emergence as a solo playwright with a style all his own. His second series of three one-acts, Offices, a timely deconstruction of the brutalities of the 9-to-5 grind that opens this week at the Atlantic, is rich in filthy patter and sly twists, like something Mamet might have written if he had a sunnier disposition. He seems to have a lot on his plate and even more on his mind. So this should be fun.
And then the questions start. How does he think his own work is different from the movies he makes with his brother—Blood Simple to the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men through last year’s Burn After Reading? “I don’t know.” Can he guess? “It feels remarkably similar, actually. It’s just one less of us.” Was it an early stint as an office temp that triggered these plays? “What was the trigger,” he asks, his eyes searching the room. “Was there a trigger? You know, if there was one, it was probably that.”
As it turns out, if there’s one concept he despises, it’s self-expression. “That’s not an ambition in anything I do,” he says. “To the extent that it seems like I’ve expressed myself, I’ve fucked up.” Later, he adds, “I don’t overthink stuff. That’s why it’s hard to talk to you.” This from a Princeton grad who wrote his thesis on Wittgenstein, and whose first play, Almost an Evening (which sold out the Atlantic last year) dealt amusingly with purgatory, situational ethics, and a vengeful, pissed-off God.
F. Murray Abraham, who brought his best fulminating vulgarity to the part of said deity, stars in two parts of the more earthbound Offices, including the role of an obscene bum turned suit. He admits to doing most of the talking when he’s with Coen. “It’s a very good sign for a director, because most of them talk too much,” he says. But there’s ample wit in Coen’s brevity. Abraham remembers having dinner with him and a British director, and talking over an act in Evening that wasn’t getting any laughs. The director said it didn’t matter how the audience responded, and Coen suddenly piped up with exactly two words: “That’s fucked.”
Coen has lots of personal projects swimming around in his computer. He’s published two books: Gates of Eden, a collection of mostly very good, sometimes autobiographical stories, and a poetry collection that includes dirty limericks, which he loves just as much as his weightier efforts. “A poem, a dirty limerick—if you want to be redundant—it’s the same as Miller’s Crossing,” Coen says. “You want it to have the right shape. You can push it and it won’t flop over.” What he likes about his solo work is that it’s “very fussy. You make a house with other people, and it’s all interesting,” he says of the movies. “But then you make a little ship out of toothpicks. That’s a different thing.” A solitary pursuit—and a silent one.