Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Extended through October 13, $20-$65
Despite a sitcom-y plot and a trio of severely affected female characters who take a while to warm up to, Ethan Coen’s first full-length play, Women or Nothing, manages to be mildly entertaining and pleasantly amusing. Lawyer Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) and concert pianist Laura (Susan Pourfar) want to have a baby, but they don’t want to adopt or go to a clinic and use an anonymous sperm donor; instead, Gretchen has researched a coworker, Chuck (Robert Beitzel), and decided that Laura, a gold-star lesbian who has never been with a man, should sleep with him in order to get inseminated by someone with desirable genes. “Believe me, this man’s semen is superb,” Gretchen tells her girlfriend. “You’re a wine taster now?” Laura responds. Gretchen comes up with a wacky, somewhat devious, and fairly ridiculous plan that she is positive will land the unknowing Chuck in bed with Laura; unfortunately for the audience, things don’t seem so crystal clear, one of many leaps of faith that Coen and director David Cromer (who directed Pourfar in Tribes, Beitzel in Our Town, and Feiffer in The House of Blue Leaves) ask the audience to accept in this uneven but ultimately likable production. The scene between the easygoing Chuck and the pent-up, elitist, and self-deprecating Laura is a gem, with razor-sharp dialogue and outstanding performances as she tries to get him drunk and not give away the reason behind their carefully arranged meeting. The following morning, Laura’s nosy mother, Dorene (Deborah Rush in a star turn), arrives, and the situation gets even more complicated, as each woman learns surprising things about the other.
But unanswered questions abound, preventing Women or Nothing from reaching the next level. There are no mentions of condoms or ovulation, and there are numerous red herrings, from a poorly hidden group of family photos to a fancy piano on an upper platform that is never brought into play in any manner whatsoever, toying with the audience’s expectations. Coen, who with his brother, Joel, has made such award-winning films as Barton Fink, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men, has also published a book of short stories and a collection of poetry and has written several one-act plays, including Talking Cure, which was one of three works, along with Elaine May and Woody Allen, that made up the 2011 Broadway flop Relatively Speaking. Thus, on his own, Ethan Coen specializes in the short form, and he has trouble sustaining Women or Nothing for its one-hundred-minute running time, with a brief intermission (even though the program says there will not be one). He and Cromer just can’t quite get past the R-rated Three’s Company set-up, though they try their best, resulting in an amiable, if not wholly satisfying, rendezvous, which has been extended through October 13 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater.