What’s irksome about this play by filmmaker Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men) at the Atlantic Theatre Company is that it’s so clearly a rough draft. While most American playwrights see their scripts workshopped endlessly—sometimes for years, and often to the detriment of the work and their creativity—here’s a famous (albeit talented) writer whose name recognition and cultural capital entitles him to a full, beautifully designed and well-cast production of the play that doesn’t quite yet know what it wants to be when it grows up.
Laura and Gretchen are a lesbian couple “desperate” (according to press materials) to have a child. Gretchen contrives for her office-mate Chuck to visit her at home, where she’s conveniently absent, so that Laura can seduce him, all with the convoluted intent to use what appears to be Chuck’s first-rate sperm to conceive their child. Through a series of coincidences, the plan goes awry, as they tend to do, even in would-be sex farces like this one.
But Coen’s uncooked play isn’t quite yet a sex farce; it also has ambitions towards a darker, more philosophical comedy about ethics and identity, while at the same time borrowing a page from Oscar Wilde and appearing an absurd comedy of manners. Any one of these genres and styles might have been enough. As a mash-up, the play keeps missing its mark, as the actors and their characters wave to one another from the decks of stylistic ships heading in quite different directions.
The talented Susan Pourfar (Tribes and a role on TV’s Scandal as Huck’s murderous paramour) plays Laura, a famous classical pianist with a rather vicious notion of her own success. Pourfar affects a snobby, ponderously cultured accent to represent Laura’s affectations, which becomes funny once you understand that Pourfar wants us to join her in poking fun at the character. Halley Feiffer, on the other hand, goes for sitcom cute and sassy as Gretchen in the evening’s least tonally convincing performance.
Robert Beitzel, as Chuck, seems to have wandered in from a Pinter play, pausing often as he tries to understand what’s happening to him as the evening’s machinations ensnare him. Debra Rush is wonderful as Laura’s mother, who plays the Lady Bracknell of the affair with imperious affront. She’s a sexual adventurer in her own right, but even she can’t quite keep up with the intrigue set in motion by her daughter and her partner. Rush is wonderful, and she and Pourfar prove terrific comic partners, as their scenes work best so far.
I saw a preview of this production, which opens on September 16 and has already been extended by a week, into October. Director David Cromer, known for his coup de theatre with his terrific production of Our Town, and more recently revered for his direction of Tribes, stays out of the actors’ way, understating their blocking and allowing lots of realist silence and room for business that sets up the play’s final reveal. But what Women or Nothing really needs is a dramaturg to help Coen decide which path through this plot and its issues he really wants to take, and to help him prune off the tangents.
As is, the play seems most invested in plot points that consider the difference between nature and nurture. Gretchen is particularly committed to the idea of a sperm-donor whose “product” is tested, assuming that children are as eggs and semen do. But Coen’s twist implies that we can’t really control our destinies, that genetic material both does and doesn’t predict its own outcomes. Even his argument wants to have it both ways, and some of the plot stretches each side of the point.
Chuck and Laura have the most interesting and literate dialogue in their seduction scene, as Laura reveals herself to be aware of her own carefully constructed public persona, even as she bemoans her own inability to insist on the more private self she suspect exists. But ultimately, it’s difficult to care one way or another, as the dialogue swings between slightly amusing and simply serviceable.
And why, really, did Coen need a lesbian couple to tell this story? Clearly, his inquiry into nature and genetics needed a non-reproductive couple to set his plot in motion. But we know nothing of Laura and Gretchen’s relationship, including why they so desperately want a child. Pourfar and Feiffer demonstrate not a spark of chemistry; even their casual affection seems awkward and unpracticed. The lesbian relationship seems shoehorned into a plot that wants to be about many other things, few of them developed.
Perhaps with more previews before opening, Coen and Cromer can pull the production together. For now, it’s a shame to see the Atlantic’s budget and the designers’ skills wasted on a gorgeous two-level interior set (a spiral staircase leads up to a loft in which a baby grand piano sits, spot-lit, but never visited or played by the characters), a talented cast, and a play that doesn’t really do service to either.
The Feminist Spectator