09/17/2013 12:32 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

First Nighter: Ethan Coen's "Women or Nothing" Doesn't Add Up to Enough More Than Nothing

If you think Broadway boulevard comedies are a thing of the past, you'd better think again. Ethan Coen--the half of the cinema's Oscar-winning Coen brothers team who from time to time likes to do a play solo--has written Women or Nothing, a genuine boulevard comedy for off-Broadway. To be sure, serving as the Atlantic Theatre Company's season opener, the work boasts a highly contemporary appearance. A shame that in freshening up the old formula for the 21st century, Coen's breezy and facile work ultimately lets him and the audience down.
Way, way down.
When Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) is discovered aiming a long gaze at Michele Spadaro's version of a typical upper-scale Manhattan apartment--and then removes several objects from several shelves--her intention is initially unclear. Indeed, prolonging spectator uncertainly as to exactly what's transpiring is obviously Coen's intention. The situation continues at length on the return of roommate Laura (Susan Pourfar).
Revealing what the pair is up to--which does come into focus during an amusingly rapid ensuing exchange--has to be classified as something of a spoiler. Such liberty is required however, or this review would have to end here. Therefore, if you resolutely don't want to know what scheme the women are up to uncorking, stop reading now.
Still reading? In that case, concert pianist Laura and lawyer Gretchen are a lesbian couple eager to bring a child into their comfy surroundings. To that end Gretchen has invited a litigator colleague to dinner with the idea that he'll fall for Laura and unwittingly become the sperm donor the intelligent gals have been seeking. Reluctant to play along, Laura resists Gretchen's arguments throughout a scene-long debate that has all the hallmarks of old-fashioned drawing room banter brought up to date. Among the mooted topics: lesbian culture and mores, the best ways to come by semen.
Of course, Laura relents. Otherwise, no play. The remaining three scenes cover: first, Laura's encounter with irresistibly affable prospective sperm-supplier Chuck (Robert Beitzel); second, a morning-after drop-by from Laura's authoritarian mom Dorene (Deborah Rush); and finally, a Laura-Gretchen post-mortem held around the latter's birthday cake.
Where Coen excels is at sophisticated urban give-and-take--something of a surprise since it's not an area that he and brother Joel normally explore in their movies. Though the initial conversation between Gretchen and Laura about the pros and cons of in-person semen delivery versus clinic acquisition extends way past its sell-by date, it is definitely pithy--mostly by virtue of Laura's arguments against the former mode of sperm acquisition.
Laura's contrariness extends most of the way through the gabfest she has with Chuck. During it, physical humor is injected into the proceedings when she takes up a cocktail shaker and prepares a mixed drink called Twilight on the Beach. So while chatting up Chuck, Laura is testing Chuck's tolerance--as well as the audience's. But his easy-going responses are another successful tactic Coen finds to keep on-lookers' interest piqued.
Post-intermission, well-dressed, well-coiffed Dorene arrives like the wise older woman who's a staple of any self-respecting boulevard entertainment. Sitting straight-backed, she talks with no nonsense about her adulterous past, while under the impression that the man who's coming from daughter Laura's bedroom is a dalliance rather than the likable dupe the audience knows he is. At first an annoying presence, Dorene slowly ingratiates herself with Chuck on that side of the footlights and with the patrons on this side. Eventually declaring, among other notions, that people make mistakes and learn to "move on," she declares that therefore, "there are no mistakes." Savvy woman.
Yes, Coen puts sagacious and humorous words in his characters' mouths, but--here's his undoing--he doesn't exhibit them in situations that ultimately make sense. At best, they're extremely questionable. For instance, would Laura, calling herself "a gold-star lesbian" (i. e., a lesbian who's never had sex with a man) go to bed with a man so quickly after a perhaps intense but nevertheless casual conversation? Would she throw over a life-long conviction with so little post-coital concern?
Would the honorable man Chuck is written as--and who divulges something to Dorene about his psychological history--agree to sexual intercourse without even broaching the use of condoms? Would he fail to wonder why Laura doesn't broach the subject? More than that, wouldn't Gretchen and/or Laura at least consider that a single encounter with a man might not guarantee conception? After all, here are two urbane women banking on Chuck, the house-calling sperm bank, to answer their prayers as of a one-night stand.
And what's with the contrivance by which Chuck comes to realize the position he's been put in? It's a rather far-fetched development that the audience gets to witness but, for the sake of irony, Laura and Gretchen don't.
Coen concludes his piece--the latest in a series of disappointing theater outings from him--by bringing Bradley King's lights down when it feels as if he simply doesn't know where else to go. The impression he leaves is that the cunning chatter and the four players' skill at handling it are the major achievements here.
First thanks for that accomplishment must go to Pourfar, who--as directed by David Cromer (they worked together on Tribes two seasons back)---shows enormous comic acumen. Had a play of this stripe bowed four or five decades ago, Barbara (Mary, Mary) Bel Geddes or Julie (Forty Carats) Harris would have been the leading lady with name in lights. Pourfar, comically wrought up, proves to be in that league.
Holding up their end of Coen's play, Feiffer, Beitzel and Rush also earn, uh, gold stars. Feiffer has a perfectly natural manner on stage. Beitzel is totally convincing as a nice guy who, confronted with a strangely illogical and argumentative woman, sees through to her appealing qualities. Rush, a veteran at this sort of gavotte, is hilarious at building Dorene's impermeable façade.
One last Women or Nothing oddity: To prove that Laura isn't just whistling Bach's "Art of Fugue" about being an internationally recognized ivory-tickler, designer Spadaro has placed a grand piano on an upper level reached by an upstage spiral staircase. For whatever reason, neither Laura nor anyone else goes to the prominent instrument.
How come? Evidently, there's no rule that says a piano on stage must be played--as there is about bringing a gun on stage that must be fired. So congrats to the Atlantic for spending the shekels it must have taken to hoist the prop, which perhaps has no insides, to its lofty position and then leaving it there, alone and untouched.