Michele Spadaro's beautiful set for Women or Nothing, Ethan Coen's first full-length play, now receiving its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company, tells its own story before any of the actors set foot on it. The perfectly aligned furniture, the dozens of knickknacks and table lamps adorning the floor-to-ceiling shelves, and the difficult Baroque piano music wafting down the spiral staircase of this Manhattan duplex let us know what kind of people live here: control freaks — specifically New York City power lesbians. These aren't your average Christine Quinn fundraiser attendees, however, but cultural sophisticates accustomed to controlling all within their reach. With the addition of actors, this basic story plays out onstage in an amusing but not particularly climactic new work.
The play opens with Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) surveying her domain and carefully removing any evidence of her relationship with her partner, Laura (Susan Pourfar). She's doing this because she intends for one of her male coworkers, Chuck (Robert Beitzel), to discover Laura in her apartment that night, become aroused, and impregnate her. Both women are now middle-aged and eager to have a baby, but Gretchen is repulsed by the idea of an anonymous sperm donor: Such a person would almost certainly dilute the magnificence of Laura's pristine DNA. So she's chosen Chuck as the unwitting father of their future child. He's a sensitive, intelligent, and handsome man with six-pack abs and a J.D.
Of course, the problem with such precise machination is that it never goes exactly according to plan and is often based on false assumptions. Who's to say that Chuck will even want to sleep with a rigid and snobby "gold-star lesbian" like Laura?
Pourfar excels as Laura, the classical pianist with a patrician demeanor whose casual conversation consists of words like "puerile" and "indefatigable." One can feel in her very posture the "stick up her ass" that Gretchen requests she remove for just one night, in order to secure Chuck's seed. This highlights another very important flaw in the plan: Just because a man and a woman have unprotected sex for one night, there is no guarantee that the woman will become pregnant.
Luckily, Coen has written Laura's mother, Dorene (Deborah Rush), into the second act. She's an icy WASP who speaks casually about her numerous love affairs with strange and interesting men, including a young Jack Kerouac. Dorene is a stock character, to be sure, but one that never fails to amuse if performed intelligently, as Rush does. Her one-liners — "This was an age before ethics, darling," she retorts when Laura is scandalized by the revelation that Dorene was sleeping with her childhood therapist — are a real highlight. Her blasé admonishments are not only funny, but they serve as a reminder to Laura that it is impossible to control everything.
Still, something about this play feels unfinished, and the audience knows it: After the final blackout the dead silence is broken only by the bright lights of the curtain call. The audience members don't clap because they are waiting for another scene to make sense of everything they've just seen. Coen gives them no such satisfaction, perhaps indicative of the fact that life has no logical endings. It might also betray the fact that the stakes are too low for these generally well-off bourgeois urbanites for the audience to care.
Either way, you'll have many laughs at this amusing and well-acted evening of theater. Just don't expect to walk away with any grand insights on how to live your life, unless your idea of a grand insight is a two-hour all-women-become-their-mothers joke.