OREM — Ethan Coen is best known, along with his brother Joel, as part of the film making team the Coen Brothers. Recognized for their absurd situations, quirky humor, and eye catching cinematography, they have won international acclaim for movies like Fargo; No Country for Old Men; True Grit; and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Ethan, however, is also a playwright, and one of his works received its Utah debut at Utah Valley University this week.
Ethan Coen’s script Waiting is about a man who dies and must spend time in a waiting room before being permitted to move on to a new place. If the story sounds simple, it’s because it is. Waiting runs only 25 minutes. However, in those 25 minutes, Ethan Coen has created a work that not only displays his usual humor, but also brings in a little bit of pathos, too.
Topher Rasmussen plays Mr. Nelson, the recently dead man who is asked to wait. Rasmussen is an excellent everyman who quickly gains the audience’s sympathy when he is sentenced at the beginning of the play to wait in a small, humdrum room. (I won’t give away details, but Mr. Nelson’s waiting time is significantly longer than the time he spent in mortality.) I don’t know how he did it, but Rasmussen made me care about his character, even though I actually knew little about what he was like during his lifetime. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment for any actor.
The rest of the cast—all of whom have much less stage time than Rasmussen—is a powerful ensemble, and it’s hard to single any of them out for special commendation. However, I was impressed by Emily Griffith‘s role as Ms. McMartin, who deals with Mr. Nelson. Griffith was careful and calculating in her role, and I appreciated the way she skillfully milked as much humor as she could from her single scene. Daniel Anderson (as Mr. Sebatacheck), Kaitlyn Dahl (as the receptionist), and Nicholas Grossaint (as Polhemus), though, were all excellent as members of a byzantine bureaucracy in the afterlife. All three displayed just the minimal amount of caring to comply with their job duties, but made it clear that they did not care about Mr. Nelson or anyone else that they may deal with (much like earthly bureaucracies). The end result was comedy gold for the audience.
In addition to being in the production, Grossaint was the director. I love how he embraced the understated humor in the script and wasn’t afraid to let silence reign on stage. He also effectively built the tension in even the most subtle moments (such as when Mr. Nelson gets his some bad news after he had left the initial waiting room). Grossaint also directed this play more like a film, which I feel was the right decision (given the playwright’s film roots) because it helped the actors embrace the subtlety of the piece.
Waiting was a one-night only event, so Utah audiences cannot see this production again. However, this cast and director are taking the production to the Chichester Festival in England. I believe that this young cast has a great piece of theatre that should please audience in the UK. As a booster of all types of Utah theater, I think that they will be the ideal ambassadors for the theatre community in this state.