BWW Reviews: Lesbian Couple Conspires to Create a Child in Ethan Coen's 1st Full-Length Play WOMEN OR NOTHING
Ethan Coen, whose first full-length play, Women or Nothing, is running at the Atlantic Theater Company through October 13, clearly has no plans to give up his filmmaking career with his brother Joel; their 16th feature film, Inside Llewyn Davis, will be in movie houses in December. About his playwriting, Coen told the Associated Press: "It's recreational. It's part-time. I'm a play hobbyist. I'm a gentleman playwright."
But would a gentleman write a play about a lesbian couple planning to trick a man out of his sperm?
Women or Nothing has none of the blood or violence or bizarre visuals that characterize much of the Coen Brothers' films, from Fargo to Blood Simple to No Country For Old Men. It is a slight, blunt and improbable comedy full of one-liners, which could easily have been tightened from its 100 minute running time (with an intermission) to the length of one of his previous one-act plays. But then there'd be less time to laugh.Gretchen and Laura are a couple who want to have a child, but Gretchen does not want to use a sperm bank: "What do you know for certain about the anonymous donor? Exactly one thing: it was a guy who wanted to whack off incognito. What kind of profile is that for a father?" Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) cannot conceive, so she tries to convince a reluctant Laura (Susan Pourfar) to sleep with a man. Not just any man, but one whom she has carefully selected. Chuck (Robert Beitzel) is a divorced co-worker of hers, with a child so cute and smart that it proves he has the right genetic material. And best of all, in a few days he is moving to Florida (cue several dumb jokes at Florida's expense), so he would never even see the consequences of the one-night stand Gretchen has meticulously set up for Laura to have with the unaware Chuck.
Students of logic - or just people who live in an American city in 2013 - might at this point have a few questions:
1. Would a lesbian couple really have no male friend they could simply ask to be a willing partner, rather than having to trick somebody? And why do they have to trick Chuck anyway?
2. Why would they assume that one sexual encounter would be enough to assure that Laura would get pregnant?
More such questions will occur in the subsequent scene between Chuck and Laura, and then the one that follows between Laura and Chuck and Laura's quirky mother Dorene ( Deborah Rush) who drops by unannounced the next morning.
But Women or Nothing is not just another silly outdated sex comedy. Coen has a sharp ear for dialogue, and what seems like a genuine interest in exploring some thought-provoking themes -- about how much one can control one's world, how much one can change oneself; there is hidden in the shtick an argument of nature over nurture. He also offers a redeeming, mischievous plot twist.
Director David Cromer, justly celebrated for bringing heft, freshness and fluidity to many recent productions, has cast performers he has worked with before - Robert Beitzel in Our Town, Susan Pourfar in Tribes, Halley Feiffer in House of Blue Leaves - and Deborah Rush, a Broadway veteran with spot-on timing -- to add more credibility to the characters' interactions than perhaps the script really deserves. The dynamic in particular between Pourfar and Beitzel is such that I'd love to see them paired in another show.
Scenic designer Michele Spadaro offers some eye-catching details, from the elaborate shelves of bric-a-brac to the building you can see clearly outside the window. But Coen's script relies on words, not images. There is a piano on the second story of the Gretchen and Laura's duplex (Laura is a concert pianist), which is never used, nor remarked upon by any of the characters. It somehow serves for me as a metaphor for all the instruments that Coen normally employs for his films, put aside to create a different kind of music for the stage.
Photographs by Kevin Thomas Garcia.