101. WOMEN OR NOTHING
If you’re a movie lover you probably count some of the 16 movies of the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, among your favorites. Ethan has also tried his hand at playwriting, but to date he has focused on one-acts, and WOMEN OR NOTHING, at the Atlantic Stage Company, is his first full-length play. Sorry to say, it is not only not a BARTON FINK, BLOOD SIMPLE, FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; it is not even a THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE or THE LADYKILLERS, among the few relative clinkers in the Coen oeuvre. Its mild pleasures are transitory and disposable, and make you appreciate how difficult it is to transfer screenwriting talent to the stage.
The basic premise on which this dramedy is built is so implausible that you wonder at how the play could have gotten this far. Two highly educated, successful, and attractive lesbians, living in a beautiful New York duplex with a spiral staircase, want to have a child. They thereupon decide to trick a man whose genes are likely to produce a terrific offspring into having sex with one of them, Laura (Susan Pourfar), a 40-year-old, internationally famous, classical pianist. Laura, a short-haired brunette, who calls herself a “gold star lesbian” because she’s never had sex with a man, is hesitant, but her lover, Gretchen, a longhaired, blonde beauty unable to conceive, is so into the idea that she finds every conceivable argument as to why having a baby by artificial insemination is a horrible one. The idea of adoption is given short shrift. The playwright appears so taken with the contrivance of a lesbian seducing a straight guy that all rational thought about the implications are dismissed for one flimsy reason or another.
A plan is concocted whereby Chuck (Robert Beitzel), a handsome lawyer in Gretchen’s office, divorced but with a 12-year-old daughter Gretchen has met and admired, will be invited to the women’s apartment to have dinner with Gretchen, but learn on his arrival that she’s been detained and that Laura, a “neighbor,” has been recruited to occupy his time. This, the conspirators are convinced, will allow Laura to get him in the sack. An important point is that he’s moving to Florida (which is the tired butt of some unnecessary jibes); therefore, Gretchen argues, he’ll be out of the picture and won’t even know he’s the father of the baby that’s sure to result from this one-night fling.
Despite all the ethical issues that get so casually shredded in the women’s plan, not to mention Laura’s agreeing to something that should be sexually revolting to her, we have a situation where Chuck must not only succumb to Laura’s charms but must be able in only one shot (which turns out to be a doubleheader) to make Laura preggers!! Of course, Chuck arrives, spends the evening chatting pleasantly with Laura about a host of issues, and falls into the trap. In order to follow this impossible scenario, Chuck never asks why they are having sex in an apartment Laura says she doesn't live in. Nor does he raise the issue of using protection. The next morning, Laura’s glamorous but eccentric mother, Dorene, played by the marvelous Deborah Rush, embarrasses Laura with a surprise visit, figures out (more or less) the shenanigans that are underway, offers her comically off-the-wall yet perceptive commentary, and departs. Before she goes, however, she has a one-on-one with Chuck, during which he delivers the plot twist (a good example of dramatic irony) that—unbeknownst to the women—subverts the basis for the entire conspiracy. Chuck, too, will have his major moment of discovery before he takes his leave, but since the play begins on one day and ends on the next, we never learn if Chuck’s sperm hooked up with Laura’s egg.
Described like this, there seems to be a lot of plot in WOMEN OR NOTHING, but, actually, the plot, for all its plotting, is essentially an excuse for talk, especially in the long act 1, scene 2, scene between Laura and Chuck in which they discuss various things around a table. The principal blocking involves Laura’s using a shaker to make a mixed drink, using overstated masturbatory (male version, if you please) movements; this is a rather cheap laugh director David Cromer aims for at least three times. Putting Laura and Chuck together is necessary so that Mr. Coen can establish the relationship that will bring the pair together for their bedroom escapade; this pumps up the stage air with chatter that, while momentarily interesting, concerns Laura and Chuck's personal attitudes toward several subjects (therapy, self-respect, genes, being human, childrearing etc.) that, for the most part, have little to do with the forward movement of the play.
The need to fill these folks’ mouths with words, words, words is especially noticeable in the case of Dorene. Here we have an obviously sophisticated woman who, for no apparent reason other than to give her something hopefully fascinating to say, begins to talk openly and without shame in front of her daughter about all the men she cheated with. As Dorene has never shared this information during Laura’s 40 years on earth, it comes as a complete surprise to her astonished daughter, but this is immaterial; it occupies time, gets a few laughs (as when she casually announces that Laura’s math tutor “stuck his finger in my anus”), and, since one of the lovers mentioned is Jack Kerouac, tints the proceedings with a frisson of historicity, regardless of it being completely fictional.
Everything transpires in Michele Spadaro’s attractive set, with the side walls lined with shelves bearing objets d’art and books; a tastefully modern dining table and chairs are at stage left and a living room arrangement at right (with, remarkably, the couch up against the side wall—as in most apartments—and not facing the audience in the room’s middle, as per the stage convention). The rear wall, with two windows showing in forced perspective the apartment house across the way (a rather unappealing view for so successful an artist as Laura), carries a number of paintings selected to show Laura and Gretchen’s tastes; these are deliberately undermined when Gretchen, hoping to get Chuck in the mood, replaces a painting of a pianist with one of a nude. The set’s most unusual element is a second floor, shown via a partial ceiling over the living room area, with a spiral staircase upstage right leading to it. We can see a piano there, but Laura never goes up to play it. A lot of money seems to have been spent for a useless reminder of Laura’s profession.
Both Ms. Feiffer nor Ms. Pourfar are competent pros but they don’t bring much charm to their roles. Ms. Pourfar is saddled with a character who refers to herself as being "insufferable," so she has a couple of strikes against her from the get-go. Mr. Beitzel is a believable Chuck, a nice guy who wonders if his awareness of his own niceness is somehow not so nice; he also offers another set of eye-popping abs and pecs to the growing list of New York actors who must be making it de rigueur to add weight lifting to the their résumés. The takeaway memory from WOMEN OR NOTHING is Ms. Rush’s Dorene; with her perfectly coiffed blonde bob, pale white, still-tight skin, and stylish gray dress and pearls complementing a dry as a martini comic performance, managing with perfect aplomb to say absolutely ridiculous things without losing her dignity. While the scene and her dialogue seem overly contrived to gather chortles by their unexpected contrast with the figure of gentility her appearance creates, they are the single most enjoyable part of the performance.
As the subject matter might imply, words like sperm and semen get plenty of play time, and inspire ribald (but only mildly amusing) quips as when Laura imagines that the answer to a request for the manly fluid would be, “Will you be having it inside or all over your face?” This kind of humor seems out of place in the play’s world, and hints at a cynical attempt at laughter at any price.
One of the play’s themes is that life can’t be controlled and that things will take their own course. You can ponder that while deciding if this play is worth a visit.