Ethan Coen’s “Women or Nothing” at Atlantic Theater Company in NYC – warning plot spoilers!

Warning: Plot Spoilers!

Ethan Coen’s new play, “Women or Nothing,” has a limited run at Atlantic Theater Company’s West 20th Street theater space in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood.  I attended the September 18 evening performance.  The play officially opened a few days earlier.  Maybe I was a bit prejudiced by having read the NY Times review, but then again I didn’t agree with everything that critic said.

The show raises ethical/moral issues about an interesting situation: a lesbian couple wants to have a child.  Gretchen (played by Halley Feiffer) is a lawyer, Laura (played by Susan Pourfar) is a concert pianist.  Gretchen argues that they should not get anonymous sperm through a fertility clinic, because she wants more control over the genetic heritage of their child, which is going to be borne by Laura.  She concocts a scheme to bring Laura together with one of Gretchen’s co-workers at the law firm, a tall, handsome, intelligent man named Chuck (played by Robert Beitzel), the father of a delightful girl, with the idea that Chuck and Laura will have one-time sex, Laura will get pregnant, and Chuck will move, as scheduled, to Florida a few days after their meeting, where he is planning to relocate to be near his daughter (who is in the custody of his ex-wife).  Chuck will never know that he has fathered a child; he is being “used” as a sperm supplier.  Flag ethical issue, about which Laura expresses some concern.  As the play opens, Gretchen is scooting around their living room, removing all photographs that would inform a reasonably intelligent guest that the apartment is occupied by a lesbian couple.  She stacks the framed photos on an upper shelf in the closet by the entry, and replaces a large painting of Laura at the keyboard with a large painting of a reclining nude woman.  Chuck doesn’t know that co-worker Gretchen is a partnered lesbian, and the idea is to keep him in the dark about that.  Chuck shows up for a dinner date with Gretchen, but Laura answers the door, and has concocted a story about being a neighbor who was in the apartment on some errand while Gretchen was delayed.  There ensues a very talky scene two during which Laura and Chuck exchange volleys of dialogue, resolving into them being attracted to each other a heading towards the bedroom.  All going according to plan.  Blackout.  (As originally conceived, the play would be in one act with four scenes, but after the printed Playbill went to press, and shortly before the official opening, they decided to insert an intermission at this point.)

After intermission, the fourth character shows up, Laura’s mother (played by Deborah Rush).  Mother is an outrageous, opinionated woman who, previously unbeknownst to Laura, frequently cheated on her late husband.  After much doorbell ringing and banging on the door, Laura comes from the bedroom to let her in.  Mother is bearing a birthday gift for Gretchen, and heads towards the bedroom.  Laura, panicked, heads her off, the Mother (Dorene) concludes Laura is cheating on Gretchen with another woman.  Comic (to the audience) dialogue ensues as Dorene is the dispenser if sage (but irrelevant?) advice, but Laura’s secret is revealed when Chuck wanders shirtless into the living room.  (Comment:Aactor Beitzel has a gorgeous body, briefly diverting attention from ongoing dialogue between Dorene and Laura until he pulls his shirt on!!)  Dorene immediately figures out what is going on and falls into the deception plan.  At one point, Chuck and Dorene are alone in the living room while Laura is taking a cellphone call from Gretchen in the bedroom.  Dorene learns that Chuck is not the biological father of his daughter; due to a history of depression in his family, he insisted that his wife be inseminated from an anonymous donor.  So much for Gretchen’s plan to get “great genes”?)  After Dorene and Chuck both leave, secrets intact, Gretchen and Laura have their little birthday celebration followed by blackout.  When the play ends, we don’t know whether Laura is pregnant (although it is made clear that the sex was great and Chuck “came” twice in Laura without a condom, evidently).  We also know there are tensions in the women’s relationship, and we suspect that if Laura is pregnant and has the child, it is going to strain the relationship even more.  Gretchen is selfish and manipulative.  Is Laura bisexual?  Who knows.

OK, so I thought the first act was too long and especially scene two between Chuck and Laura should be tightened up.  The second act was riveting, and there was plenty of interesting humor, much of it generated by the various secrets being kept by various characters.   The ethical issues loomed over the play – especially the way Gretchen and (a reluctant at first) Laura are treating Chuck in a way that overlooks the human dimension.  They are actually appropriating his sperm in a deceptive scheme that is quite despicable as a matter of ethics.  Will they get away with it?  Will Chuck, who seems to have fallen a bit for Laura, really not get back in touch after moving to Florida?  Will Laura actually have a child, and will the child inherit the strain of depression running in Chuck’s family (from his mother and her mother before her)?  The play ends with big unanswered questions.  There is one really gaping factual hole in the plot:  This is evidently set in contemporary New York City involving intelligent, professional young adults in their 30s.  Is it plausible to think that on a first acquaintance they would have UNPROTECTED SEX?  That Chuck, who was so concerned about the possibility of passing on genetically-based propensity for depression that he prevailed on his wife to get anonymous sperm to conceive their own child, would jump into bed with a nice single woman and have unprotected sex that could produce exactly that result??

I guess it is worthwhile seeing because: (1) it is entertaining, especially in the second half, (2) it raises questions and makes you think, and (3) the acting, directing (David Cromer), lighting (Bradley King), costumes (Sarah Laux), set (Michele Spadaro), music (Daniel Kluger), etc., were very well done up to Atlantic Theater Company’s high standards.  As to acting, all four players were superb, but Deborah Rush steals every scene she is in.  Wow!   I would certainly recommend it, although various audience members may be offended by various aspects of the story.

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