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A CurtainUp Review
Women Or Nothing
"I would not sleep with a normal man. How could I sleep with a man who wants to live in Florida." — Laura, about the soon to move to Florida plans of the one-night stand guy at the center of Gretchen's alternative to a semen donor.
Women Or Nothing
L-R: Halley Pfeiffer and Susan Poufar(Photo credit: Kevin Thomas Garcia)
I've like some but not all of the movies made by the Coen brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men being on my like list). The same is true of Ethan Coen's work as a playwright, all presented by the Atlantic Theater, and falling within the genre of one-act play assemblages. I found Almost an Evening an amusing, promising debut. <Offices which followed was also quite enjoyable. But except for one playlet, Happy Hour was less rather than more satisfying than its predecessors.

Clearly, if Coen was to grow as a playwright, it was time to abandon this short play teetering close to sketch comedy territory and write a full bodied play. As if he heard me, Mr. Coen has given the Atlantic Theater a full-length play, and as always supportive of his playwriting career, the company has mounted it on its Main Stage and turned the direction over to one of the theater's most high profile directors, David Cromer.

I wish I could report that with Women Or Nothing Coen's playwriting is in full flower. Unfortunately the very opposite is true. In fact, I watched it wondering how the man who was at least half responsible for Fargo, could write anything so annoyingly misconceived, egregiously contrived, unbelievable and unfunny.

Even the able Mr. Cromer couldn't save this contemporary comedy from pancaking from the get-go. He's cast Susan Pourfar who did such wonderful work with him in Tribes and Halley Feiffer, one of the nuns in his House of Blue Leaves from two women he's successfully worked with before, as the main women of the title. But these able and attractive thespians are unable to make either the actions or interactions of their characters, two mature, accomplished Lesbians, believable or interesting enough to spend time with.

To sum up the situation that Coen has concocted: Laura (Pourfar) and Gretchen (Feiffer) are both in their early forties with well-paying careers (Laura as a concert pianist, Gretchen as a lawyer or some sort of executive in a law office). It seems they want to seal their relationship with a baby. Gretchen is unable to have children, so Laura is the one to have a donor baby. Like the intelligent, clear-thinking adults one would expect them to be, they've signed up for an appropriate donor, but here's the hitch: Gretchen has last-minute concerns about having a child via a donor who might have a troublesome genetic history. Her alternative is for Laura to have a one-night stand with a personable, likeable lawyer. He healthy 12-year-old daughter is proof of his genetic viability. The fact that he's relocating to Miami (which is also the source for the play's running sitcom-ish joke) makes it unlikely that he'll ever turn discover that he's fathered a child with Laura. Laura, to her credit, has reservations about the planned scheme for luring Chuck into her bed, without any knowledge of why.

Gretchen's first act plea to have Laura go along with the sperm-catching seduction didn't convince me. But it did Laura who conveniently never even brings up the argument that it's unlikely for a mature "gold star Lesbian" (meaning she never slept with a man) to conceive from a single encounter.

And so on with the play and further contrivances which bring on the involuntary donor (Robert Beitzel, another Cromer veteran from his terrific Our Town. Unsurprisingly, he and Laura hit it off but as Gretchen conveniently can't herself be a baby carrier, there's a twist about his being a donor par excellence which is revealed by the third scene entrance of Laura's mother Dorene(Deborah Rush). Rush is one of those stock moms used to ratchet up laughs which in this case work only intermittently and mostly keep the emotional issues from gaininging traction.

Michele Spadaro's set is attractively clean yet cluttered with the acouterments of two upscale New Yorkers' apartment. It features a hall closet that common sense dictates would not be a place to put a wet umbrella, unless the playwright hasn't figured out a better way to sabotage Gretchen's plan. There's also a spiral staircase leading to a loft-like platform with a piano on which Laura apparently puts in her daily three hours of practice. Daniel Kluger's original music nicely sets the mood as the audience takes its seats. Too bad what follows that little concert, is such a disappointment.

Women Or Nothing by Ethan Coen
Directed by David Cromer
Cast: Robert Beitzel (Chuck), Halley Feiffer (Gretchen), Susan Pourfar (Laura), Deborah Rush (Doreen).
Scenic design by Michele Spadaro
Costume design by Sarah Laux
Lighting design by Bradley King
Ooriginal music and sound design by Daniel Kluger
Stage Manager: Richard A. Hodge
Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20th Street
From 8/28/13; opening 9/16/13; closing 10/06/13.
Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm, Sunday at 3pm, Tuesday and Sunday at 7pm. No Sunday at 7pm on September 22, September 29, or October 6.
Running Time: 2 hours with one brief pause and one intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at Sept. 14th press performance
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