How many times have you watched some campy movie and riffed off the sheer stupidity of it? Wooden dialogue, execrable acting, lack of continuity — all easy targets. In 1982, a young Larry Coen was watching Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments with his Brandeis University friend David Crane, who went on to executive-produce the television show Friends.
"We couldn’t help but notice that the extras in the scene where the Israelites leave Egypt were a different set of extras from the Golden Calf scene," Coen explains. "The group leaving Egypt were skinny, dressed in rags, and bearing heavy burdens on temperamental beasts, whereas those at the Golden Calf orgy were tanned chorines and muscle men engaging in lusty sin. How did some extras get the orgies while others got the plagues?"
Some might be content to throw popcorn at the cathode-ray tube and call it a night, but not Coen and Crane. They were two young actors/writers/whatevers who’d just moved to New York and "wanted to make something happen." So they put aside the Andrew Lloyd Webber–style musical they’d been working on and began a script about extras marooned on a film set.
The backstage comedy has a long and noble tradition, as All About Eve, Noises Off, and Waiting for Guffman attest. But never before has a play been inspired by some of the greatest, most colossal, stupendous, and stupefying movies of this or any time: Biblical-era epics. Coen & Crane’s Epic Proportions is gearing up for its New England premiere at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, where Davis Robinson directs a cast that doesn’t number a dozen, though thousands are implied in the parodic romp.
"The play is about two brothers who go to the desert to be in an epic movie, and by the end they’ve turned against each other," says Coen, who notes the inevitability of fraternal tension as a plot point. "There’s always that moment where someone they’re very close to is someone they end up being sworn enemies with. They even did that in Gladiator, with Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix." In Epic Proportions, one brother is a wizard at crowd control thanks to a background in marching band. His talent brings him attention but also turns — yes, you guessed it — brother against brother.
The multi-talented Coen was last on stage in the Lyric’s production of Dirty Blonde and last off stage directing Shel Shocked at the Market Theater. For this project, he’s happy to be the writer, and he looks forward to "the final polish." Last year, a revised version of Epic Proportions received acclaim in New York (it had been directed by the renowned Jerry Zaks). But Coen and Crane wanted to restore their original vision. "A lot of what you see in the movie-within-the-play, Exeunt Omnes ("Everybody out!")," Coen points out, "is about betrayal and conspirators and struggles and murders and poisonings and intrigues. What’s fun is picking these huge scenes and staging them in a small theater."
Actor Neil Casey plays multiple on- and off-screen roles in the play, and he appreciates the distinctions between acting and Epic acting. "It’s very big and broad, and some of the language is very flowery. It sounds like Shakespeare where they’re using these great metaphors but not really saying anything."
As for Coen, time has not withered his appreciation of high camp, and he’s amused by the resurgence of the BC blockbuster. "There’s a whole wave of them coming — Troy, with Brad Pitt as Achilles. Gladiator set off a whole new wave." Unfortunately, what the new pictures lack is what’s essential to Epic Proportions. "Now they don’t use extras the way they used to," Coen concludes with a hint of regret. "They computer-generate them. A computer-generated crowd never has the randomness of a real crowd."
Epic Proportions opens at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston next Friday, November 22, and runs through December 21. Tickets are $22 to $38; call (617) 437-7172.