With the possible exception of David Lynch, Joel and Ethan Coen are the greatest working American filmmakers. They breathe and sweat cinema. As a result, their movies bestow upon their audiences a clear and contagious love of the medium, and nobody since Stanley Kubrick has been so successful in combining high and lowbrow. Which makes it odd that Ethan Coen has pursued an ancillary career in playwriting. The form of filmmaking is so embedded in him that surely he could not adapt to the stage—that is what makes him so great in the first place: he is the movies, and therefore cannot also be the theater. True, he has dabbled in other media. He has written an amusing but forgettable collection of short stories, Gates of Eden, two books of poetry, and a handful of skits. But nothing comparable to, say, Fargo or A Serious Man.
The good news, then, about Women or Nothing, Mr. Coen’s first full-length play, is that it is not uncomfortable in its own skin. That is, it does not feel like it was written by a screenwriter who is stretching his legs in a playhouse for the first time. Mr. Coen has always had a tremendous gift for dialogue, and Women or Nothing is chock-full of sharp and funny lines. The bad news, however, is that in becoming a playwright he has lost most of his voice. Women or Nothing could very well have been written by any number of unknown, talented-but-not-too-talented dramatists.
Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) and Laura (Susan Pourfar) are a middle aged lesbian couple looking to have a baby. Gretchen can’t conceive and Laura prefers the idea of a sperm donor: anonymous, clean, and no contact with a penis necessary. Gretchen, on the other hand, would like to trick Chuck (Robert Beitzel) into having a one night stand with her partner because he’s a nice guy and because his own daughter (with his ex-wife) has turned out well. “Think of it as a turkey baster,” she says. “His penis is just a way to get the sperm in. That’s all it is. Penis, turkey baster.” But when Chuck comes over, he and Laura have a much stronger connection than was expected, and they spend the night confessing the frustration they feel about the difference between how they are perceived, how they act, and how they feel inside. The afterglow of the following morning, however, is quickly interrupted by Laura’s indefatigably blunt mother, Dorene (Deborah Rush). (“I knew about Kerouac,” Laura tells Dorene after the latter mentions an affair she had with the beat writer. “Everyone knew about Kerouac. It was how you introduced yourself to people. ‘Hello, I’m Dorene Mallon, I once had a passionate affair with Jack Kerouac.’ ”)
Ms. Pourfar, who was fantastic in Tribes, offers another understated performance here. She is a wounded cynic and, in a modest sweater, she looks like a kicked dog that doesn’t know whether to bite or lick an approaching stranger. Mr. Beitzel is quite earnest as Chuck, playing him as a little more dopey than insightful, and Ms. Rush is absolutely hilarious, introducing some loud, unambiguous sex talk into an otherwise reserved and circumlocutious play.
Ultimately, Women or Nothing proves a perfectly acceptable way to pass an evening. It is smart and funny though somewhat underwhelming. Soon it will be forgotten, but perhaps not entirely gone.