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NEW YORK – After dabbling in the theater with a series of one-acts in recent seasons, Ethan Coen delivers his first full-length play in Women or Nothing. And guess what? It’s a one-act padded out with an intermission that’s not the only hole in this illogical scenario. David Cromer is a director eminently capable of scratching out emotional truth, and there’s considerable wit, along with four accomplished actors, to keep the talky material diverting. But the abrupt ending gives way to the feeling that this inconsequential play is true to only half of its title. It’s more about nothing than about women or anything else.
Controlling New York lawyer Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) and uptight classical pianist Laura (Susan Pourfar) are a couple who want a baby. Since Gretchen can’t conceive, that job falls to Laura. She has no problem with the white-coat efficiency of a sperm bank, but Gretchen insists that nature be their path to parenthood, not an anonymous donor. Having identified some desirable DNA in Chuck (Robert Beitzel), a smart, sweet litigator from her office, she concocts an elaborate scheme to hook him up with Laura, keeping him in the dark about their motives.
While Gretchen probably doesn’t convince many in the audience of the justification for this ruse, she bamboozles Laura – a self-described “gold-star lesbian” who has never slept with a man – into going along with it. Chuck has been invited over to drop off some papers at Gretchen’s apartment and stay to dinner. But Gretchen will claim to have been called out of town on urgent business, sending “her neighbor” Laura over to let him in. While Laura has all the social ease of an angry hermit, she will ply Chuck with cocktails and steer him into bed.
In too many ways to count, this laborious set-up stretches plausibility for a play that’s closer to an old-fashioned boulevard comedy than something in the realm of absurdism or farce. Do they really think 40-year-old Laura will get pregnant on her first try? Wouldn’t a woman as breezily confident as Gretchen be open about her sexuality at work? Won’t Chuck question why they’re having sex in his colleague’s bed rather than going next door to where Laura supposedly lives? And wouldn’t he find it odd that she requires no protection?
There’s almost enough humor and wry observation to overlook these and other nagging questions. And in the grounded sensitivity of Beitzel’s performance, there’s much to enjoy as Chuck confounds the expectations and pierces the cynicism of stiff, defensive Laura. Both actors explore the shifting dynamics of their scene together with delicacy. But Beitzel (who worked with Cromer in the director’s superlative production of Our Town) gives the standout performance, presenting a direct, uncomplicated man and then peeling back the layers to expose his complexities and imperfections.
Those gray areas are precisely what Gretchen wasn’t counting on in her careful selection of Chuck as primo biological-father material. And in a sly touch from Coen, only Laura’s mother, Dorene (Deborah Rush, doing her best Madeline Kahn), gets a complete picture of him.
Refusing to be hurried off when she arrives at an inopportune moment, Dorene and her colorful sexual history appear to have been lobbed in from an entirely different comedy. Her main function is making Laura deny the all-too-obvious traits she has inherited from her mother. But Dorene is more perceptive than she appears; she’s the one character who doesn’t believe in overthinking reproduction. The play comes closest to making a cohesive point in the wisdom she shares with Chuck: “Life absorbs our mistakes and moves on, so really there are no mistakes.”
Unfolding on an attractive boho-chic apartment set by Michele Spadaro, with rain trickling down outside, Women or Nothing can be amusing, thoughtful and even tender. But the characters are inconsistent, their dialogue just as often overworked as illuminating. The play’s conflicts don’t take shape fully enough for its conclusion to be satisfying.
Laura expresses her misgivings about Gretchen’s plan early on, saying the human heart is a mysterious thing, and that intimacy is not something to be taken lightly. “This kind of thing can have unforeseen consequences,” she warns. The trouble is that in terms of the emotional payoff, it doesn’t.
Venue: Linda Gross Theater, New York (runs through Oct. 13)
Cast: Robert Beitzel, Halley Feiffer, Susan Pourfar, Deborah Rush
Playwright: Ethan Coen
Director: David Cromer
Set designer: Michele Spadaro
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Bradley King
Music and sound designer: Daniel Kluger
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
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