Women or Nothing

by Stephen Cedars · September 17, 2013

Playwrights on New Plays #2: Stephen Cedars looks at Ethan Coen’s first full length play at Atlantic Theater Company

After a number of one-acts, American film master Ethan Coen has written his first full-length play in Women or Nothing.  A farcical, occasionally sitcom-ish comedy about a neurotic NYC lesbian pianist who has agreed to sleep with her partner's co-worker in hopes of getting pregnant, the play veers from impressive witticism and well-observed character dynamics all the way to stock comedy that undercuts the play's attempts to reach any wider insight.

There's much to enjoy about the show, for sure, and it's certainly compelling enough for its 90 minute runtime.  The first scene struggles to find its balance between a stylized staccato dialogue and a more grounded rhythm, but it's mostly set-up for the wonderful second scene, wherein lies the play's heart.  As the aforementioned neurotic Laura (Susan Pourfar) clumsily attempts to seduce Chuck (Robert Beitzel) into impregnating her without realizing he's being conned, Coen's witty dialogue and wonderful sense of dramatic irony suggest the potential of a wonderfully complicated world of responsibility and kinship.  Pourfar is the cast stand-out by far, bringing a marvelous pathos to what might have been a grating demeanor.  Ultimately, her flaws make her adorable, and we can buy that Beitzel's earnest, sensitive Chuck would be intrigued enough to stick around, even if he won't be totally duped.  A third scene introduces Laura's mother, a parent negligent in her liberal permissiveness but ironically and hysterically sophisticated.

A scene-by-scene review may seem annoyingly trite, but it underlines the point that the play never adds up to more than the sum of its parts.  By the time the final scene starts, it's possible to extrapolate the play's intended themes from the longer (and out of place) speeches that express them, but they hardly feel earned. What the mystery of that long second scene promises ends up feeling like the distraction rather than the direction, since the play never builds from its complication but instead retreats into superficial farce.

The problem might be that the play is too beholden to too many well-practiced tropes. By committing to a broad portrayal of hyper-intelligent, urban neurotics for whom money is barely a concern, Coen gets a lot of laughs, but at the expense of any deeper analysis.  Characters make decisions for the sake of a farcical plot instead of from their eccentricities, which is fine until you realize that the play is also hoping to comment on something far deeper than its silly set-up.

Ultimately, for someone renowned for re-inventing archetypes and story forms, Coen has written a play sabotaged by its predictability. It's a high-concept play with plenty of laughs, which could be enough if there weren't the occasional hint that there's something deeper going on.  Because we get enough of that, the play feels unfinished.





The Golfer
The Golfer is a new play by Brian Parks, presented by Gemini CollisionWorks, now playing at The Brick Theater.
Punk Grandpa
Ed Malin lets us in on his thoughts about this delightful Frigid Festival entry.
With You
Ed continues his Frigid Festival Experience with a visit to another ITN playwright.