Ethan Coen’s ‘Women or Nothing’ Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW
Ethan Coen’s Women or Nothing, about a lesbian couple taking creative measures to have a baby, opened Off-Broadway last week in a world premiere directed by David Cromer at Atlantic Theatre Company. Best known as one half of acclaimed filmmaking duo the Coen brothers, Mr. Coen has previously written three evenings of one-act plays (also produced at the Atlantic), but Women or Nothing marks the playwright’s full-length debut.
When the play opens, sunny, madcap Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) is working hard to convince her more earnest partner Laura (Susan Pourfar) that staging a one-night stand with Gretchen’s co-worker Chuck (Robert Beitzel) is a far more desirable (and sensible) alternative to artificial insemination. After all, Chuck is a great guy—and she has even met his daughter (the proof is in the ‘genetic pudding!’).
As the only one of them who can conceive, Laura is not so sure about using a man for his semen. What about his dignity? And anyway, how would it even work? Besides that, she’s a 'gold star' lesbian who’s never been with a man. But Gretchen has already arranged for Chuck to come over and written the script accordingly for him to find Laura alone.
Though surely harebrained—and without a single mention of contraception—the play’s premise is simple enough. Coen’s fine hand at rendering distinct characters and laying them bare within a few lines of witty, high-minded dialogue elevates the schematic plot into a modestly thought-provoking story about identity and intimacy.
Pourfar’s intricate, compelling performance as Laura anchors the play’s exploration of psyche and sexuality. In her implausibly profound blind date seduction scene with Beitzel’s Chuck, Pourfar handles Coen’s quasi-heavy-handed lesson in Freud 101 with grounded subtlety. Beitzel nails the lucid charm around which the plot ultimately turns.
Deborah Rush is comic gold (make that platinum) as Laura’s mother Dorene, who arrives at the couple’s apartment the next morning with a discerning eye and mother’s curiosity. An impeccably stylish, upper-crust libertine, Rush’s Dorene is also something of a pop philosopher, delivering Coen’s most delectable food for thought.
With far more language than action, Women or Nothing is more of a hybrid between the one-act form Coen is used to and something more substantial. While he excels at crafting memorable characters that speak in their own unique rhythms, the play feels like an incomplete exercise—and not because of the many uncertainties Coen leaves open ended.
Unlike Laura, Gretchen embodies a single-mindedness that while entertaining, drives home a potentially troubling idea that underlies Women or Nothing and drives much of its comedy—that women use sex to get what they want. It’s not uncommon fodder for a sex farce, but as Coen is attempting something more (or at least different), it’s here that the play feels most unfinished.
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