By ELAINE MAY
Published: October 13, 2011
Allen, Coen and May: 3 Wits, One Show
The Plays of “Relatively Speaking”: clockwise from top left, Danny Hoch, left, and Jason Kravits in Ethan Coen’s “Talking Cure,”; Marlo Thomas, left, and Lisa Emery in Elaine May’s “George Is Dead”; and, from left, Bill Army, Ari Graynor and Steve Guttenberg in Woody Allen’s “Honeymoon Motel.”
THE producers of “Relatively Speaking” (which opens at the Brooks Atkinson on Oct. 20) have asked me to conduct an in-depth interview with Ethan Coen and Woody Allen, with whom it turns out I have written three one-act plays. I have done this by submitting questions to both men who will presumably answer them in depth. I’ve interviewed Woody Allen before but I have only recently met Ethan Coen and we have never spoken although our silence is friendly. My challenge will be to ask the probing questions that will reveal the deeper, more complex nature of both men in a way that will not hurt ticket sales.
Q. A miraculous being with divine powers appears to you and says, “You have a choice. You can be fabulously attractive and have an even better physique or you can reverse climate change.” What do you say to her?
ETHAN COEN Those are my choices?
WOODY ALLEN The question becomes moot since I am already more than sufficiently attractive. Of course the actual impact of my physique might not be apparent to the naked eye at first glance, but with some laser surgery or perhaps corneal transplants the viewer will be amply rewarded. The real question is, who is this miraculous being with the divine powers who has suddenly appeared and what is she wearing? If it’s six-inch heels and a thong the best idea would be to take her to a hotel room and see just how many other-worldly tricks she is capable of performing. As for climate change, all the good hotel rooms are air-conditioned.
Q. How would you go about achieving world peace if you had the time?
COEN I do have the time, so reject the premise.
ALLEN Is world peace possible or is the human race too innately aggressive? For instance: Have you ever seen women at a sample sale? And if there really could be world peace there’d be no nations to rail against and hate. We’d be down to our spouses. No, I think universal harmony is a pipedream and it may be more productive to focus on more modest goals, like a ban on yodeling.
Q. In order to make this an in-depth interview it would be helpful if you both told me something startling about yourself that you’ve never told anyone else; otherwise I will have to make it up.
COEN I have never had feeling in my toes. My uncle, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, once told me in confidence he had the same syndrome, leading me to believe it is genetic.
ALLEN I’m wanted for pederasty in Mongolia.
Q. I am told that Woody Allen has been saying his play has no redeeming social value, which is hard to believe because Woody is usually very modest. On the other hand I have no idea what redeeming social value is. What is your understanding of redeeming social value and which plays had it last season? (Plays from England don’t count.)
COEN I am a little foggy not just on “redeeming social value” but on what the play season is. I saw “Mamma Mia!” recently with the kids and am fairly confident that it didn’t have any. It’s the only play I’ve seen in the last few years, which may explain quite a bit about the nature of my contribution to our evening together. You, Elaine, said something very discerning along those lines after our first preview though I can’t now remember what it was.
ALLEN Not only does my play have no redeeming social value, it has no entertainment value. I wrote this sprightly little one-acter only to test out my new paper shredder. If there is any positive message at all in the narrative it is that life is a tragedy filled with suffering and despair and yet some people do manage to avoid jury duty.
Q. What is the biggest secret you were told and asked not to repeat?
COEN See my answer to third question.
ALLEN That it’s not a surreal practical joke: those Republican presidential candidates you see lined up for their debates are actually the best minds the G.O.P. has to offer.
Q. Although we are all three comedy writers we are not the same. Ethan is dark-skinned and elusive, Woody is fair and seems both serene and alarmed, I am muscular and have breasts. Do you think these differences are reflected in our plays? If so, in what way?
COEN I cannot speak to the physiology. I know that my one-act, the first of the evening, forces the audience to confront serious questions — notably, “How long until Woody’s one-act starts?” I don’t feel them asking this as much during yours, Elaine, possibly because yours is second and by process of elimination they know Woody’s is imminent. Frankly I had not anticipated that I’d have to compete for the distinction of who-can-write-the-bleakest-comedy, expecting to win in a walk, but you not only compete, Elaine; I am not sure but that you might not have won. This could be why you, like me, have been lobbying the producers to quit billing the evening as “Three One-Act Comedies” and start billing it as “Two One-Acts that Elicit Dark Titters, Plus a Comedy,” which they have been resisting and not because of the size of the marquee. Truth in advertising — and truth in the theater — are principles more often trumpeted than honored, and the producers’ reasoning may be that if we have travestied the one they are not bound by the other. Or maybe it is the size of the marquee. I must say, I like “Dark Titters” as a title for the evening — or does it sound like the name of a private eye?
ALLEN I didn’t realize Ethan was the dark-skinned elusive one. I thought Elaine was elusive and Ethan was the one with breasts. I am confused. Still, I agree my play is indeed serene and alarmed and that’s probably what accounts for the apparent epidemic of narcolepsy amongst the audience.
Q. You know how sometimes you lie in bed at night and think, “What if the law of gravity just wears out and lets go and I drift into space?” Does that ever make you anxious?
COEN You are talking to yourself now.
ALLEN There is no question that one day gravity will suddenly cease and I will come loose and float up but I see myself floating up out of my trousers so not only am I adrift but hovering in my shorts. I envision myself carried by gusts from Manhattan across the Hudson River where I look down and see the governor of New Jersey who, despite the loss of gravity, cannot gain lift.
Q. What question that I haven’t asked would you like to answer?
COEN Silence. Friendly silence.
ALLEN When a man is driving in a car and looks out the window and notices a woman with a great body, as he strains to check her face out, how does she know to keep turning so the back of her head is always toward him?