In general, I am skeptical about straight men writing plays about lesbian relationships, particularly after that arch-misogynist, David Mamet gave us BOSTON MARRIAGE a few years ago. Now filmmaker Ethan Coen has given us a play about a lesbian couple duping a nice straight guy in order to have some sperm so they can sire a child. In many ways, it is fitting that WOMEN OR NOTHING is being performed at the Atlantic Theatre Company, a theatre associated with the work of David Mamet. Like much of Mamet's work, Coen's play is built on a swindle, a con. Also, like Mamet's work, characterization is sacrificed to the demands of the plot machinery and "message" -- and plays usually get in trouble when they are written to deliver a message. The message in Coen's play is an anarchic one -- in the sphere of sex and marriage, no one should be held accountable. Everything is ruled by chance, not human intention. Coen also can't decide whether he is writing a play to be taken seriously or a ninety-minute sitcom episode. There are some good moments in Coen's WOMEN OR NOTHING and some witty lines, but nothing rings true. The play raises more questions than it answers.
First of all, I never believed that Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) and Laura (Susan Pourfar) have lasted for years as a couple. Gretchen is a lawyer who seems to have friends and enjoy going out and dancing. Laura is a concert pianist who seems socially inept, introspective to a fault and something of a hermit. What do they have in common? Gretchen seems to have little ethical compass (Coen's idea of what lawyers are like, I guess) and Laura questions everything.
Second, if it's Laura that loves control and Gretchen who believes in chance, how come it is Gretchen who devises the scheme to have a nice fellow lawyer Chuck (Robert Beitzel) stop by the apartment so Laura can seduce him in order to conceive a child.
Third, why have the couple waited until Laura is forty to try to get her pregnant (supposedly Gretchen can't have children)?
Fourth, do we really believe that telling a decent guy that you are a "Gold Star Lesbian" (one who has never had sex with a man) is a sure fire way to get him into bed? Or is Gretchen correct in asserting that guys will screw anything?
Fifth, do we really believe that this uptight, controlling self-conscious woman would have a sitcom mother who makes Auntie Mame look tame? Is her desire to question and to establish some order in her life merely a rebellion against a dizzy, self-absorbed, amoral mother? The mother really has no reason to be in the play except to deliver gag lines about her past sexual escapades. The play is pure sitcom during her scene with her daughter. And how would petite, blonde Deborah Rush be Susan Pourfar's mother?
Sixth, would a guy who comes out of the bedroom to find the mother of the strange woman he spent the night with then confide his inmost secrets to said mother after his bedmate gets a phone call that takes her to another room (there's clumsy playwriting for you)?
Is Coen's message really that people shouldn't concern themselves with the consequences of their actions and their effect on other people? We keep getting long speeches to that effect.
Minor point, but why does a 90 minute play need an intermission?
Maybe Coen thought the play was such a barrel of laughs that no one would care about credibility.
However, the play has too many serious moments for us to see it as simply a Laff Riot. The best scene is the long one between Laura and Chuck before they end up in bed. Here two characters really connect in a way that could lead to a friendship. We come to care for Laura and Chuck in that scene, but their relationship gets ground up in the machinery of the play. Perhaps the fine director David Cromer made a mistake in going for realism and emotional honesty with a deeply cynical script that may have called for a more sitcom style, though it's the sitcom moments that are both predictable and dishonest.
WOMEN OR NOTHING isn't a total disaster. It has good moments, particularly in the first half. The acting is good, particularly Susan Pourfar, though I think Deborah Rush is miscast in a role that demands a great comic actress -- perhaps Betty White twenty years ago. Unfortunately Coen never decided what kind of play he was writing.
WOMEN OR NOTHING. Atlantic Theater Company. September 3, 2013.