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Women or Nothing

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Halley Feiffer and Susan Pourfar.
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia.

The only original thing about Ethan Coen's new play, Women or Nothing, which just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, is how unoriginal it is. This is a shockingly—one might even say terrifyingly—conventional look at unconventional contemporary parenting. A couple wants to have a baby but can't, and thus brings in a third-party to help (the old-fashioned way, thank you very much). Start to finish, that's it. That the couple comprises two women is not for a moment questioned, blinked at, or brought up except in passing. There's progress for you.

Of course, there's still the matter of the play itself, which like Coen's other shows for the Atlantic—the anthologies Almost an Evening, Offices, and Happy Hour—sips so readily from other forms (primarily, in this case, the domestic comedy—wise-cracking mother and all!) that it may as well be on a wine-tasting tour of Napa Valley. But under the precise, sensitive direction of David Cromer (Our Town), it entertains utterly without offending, letting it work even as it doesn't quite soar beyond the field of your vision.

In this case, however, that's okay: Coen and Cromer clearly both have mainstream urban issues in sight and don't pretend they're making any grander statements. Whether saucy lawyer Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) will convince uptight concert pianist Laura (Susan Pourfar) to take one "for the team" is resolved pretty early. The man is even already chosen: Chuck (Robert Beitzel), a litigator at Gretchen's firm. He falls for Laura easily and their assignation unfolds as intended; the only surprise tension occurs when Laura's mother, Dorene (a dry-icy Deborah Rush), appears The Morning After—and defusing it hardly proves a challenge for anyone.

You may be expecting some additional dust-ups once Gretchen returns, and because divulging information about that would technically constitute a spoiler, I shall demur. But as there's only one scene after Chuck departs and Gretchen reappears, you can probably guess for yourself which road Coen explores.

Susan Pourfar with Deborah Rush and Robert Beitzel.
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia.

If it all sounds terribly unexciting—well, it is. Yet there's something compellingly watchable about it, and despite what appear to be Coen's most fervent attempts (including the largely ridiculous seduction scene in which Laura and Chuck bond over their perceived psychological failings) it's never boring. That in itself is a remarkable achievement for a play that breaks no unfamiliar ground and contains almost no conflict beyond Laura's insistence on telling everyone right away that her mother's claim to fame is having slept with Jack Kerouac. (She's had plenty of other affairs, too—learning about them riles Laura for a few minutes, tops.)

Coen's exploration of the banality of relationships in multiple forms—whether the old married gay couple, the old divorced straight couple, the sperm donor and the anticipatory mother, mother and daughter, and so on—is unquestionably thorough, and Cromer's usual stripping down of a script to its emotional essentials is just what this one needs to acquire the modicum of honest necessary to make it surge when it must. (The spectacular set, a messily organized Manhattan apartment that evokes both Gretchen and Laura's personalities, is by Michele Spadaro, also helps tremendously.)

This production falters only in its acting, and even that does not strike a fatal blow. The best of the bunch is Rush, who wraps her tongue effortlessly around Coen's arch, twisty dialogue. ("Even though I am a poor babe in the woods, skipping through a daisy field and—my goodness!—stumbling into a dark copse of adult doings. A sunny naif who could never understand the workings of these dim and mysterious chambers of the heart," runs a typical passage.) She's only onstage for one scene, but she makes Dorene the crisp, vibrant woman she must be to maintain control over the serenely in-control situation in which she becomes vaguely embroiled.

No one else manages quite as much, but Beitzel comes close—he displays a believable confidence as Chuck throughout, though it reads as too lopsided between the "before" and "after" scenes. Feiffer is enjoyable as Gretchen (a tinier role than you might expect), if lacking a fair amount of the pungent persuasiveness the character demands. Pourfar is immensely likeable, but stumbles throughout trying to bring her lines to life. But, in fairness, could anyone make things like, "I've spent my whole life waging war on nature, I practice on the piano three hours a day so that I can do something human beings don't naturally do. If it's nature, I'm against it," sound like something an actual person would actually say?

At least Pourfar's awkwardness further conveys Laura's own inability to live up to her mother's standards. Another cliché! And, oddly, one that's no more significant than any of the others. Just consider it another rough edge in a play that's full of them, but that is somehow able to envelop you in a soft embrace for a couple of hours anyway. Don't think too much about why Women or Nothing works—in fact, don't think too much about any part of it—just sort of marvel that it does, and that it does so without positing, or even pondering the existence of, a single new idea in the universe.

Women or Nothing
Through October 6
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
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