Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"Women or Nothing" - An Interesting Look at Relationships

By Judd Hollander

Honesty is the best policy or what you don't know won't hurt you are the choices Ethan Coen postulates in his latest stage offering, Women or Nothing, now at the Atlantic Theater Company. Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) and Laura (Susan Pourfar) are a seemingly happy New York couple. Gretchen is a lawyer and the more grounded of the two in terms of going after what she wants; while Laura, a classical pianist, is more introspective and insecure. Laura often wondering if she is really as talented as everybody seems to think.

Gretchen and Laura also want to have a baby. However Gretchen, who is medically unable to get pregnant, doesn't like the idea of Laura going the anonymous sperm donor route, as she wants to have a say in the genetic makeup of their offspring. Her choice for the father: Chuck (Robert Beitzel), a young, divorced co-worker at her firm, and someone with apparent good genes as evidenced by his daughter, whom Gretchen has met. Chuck doesn't know Gretchen is a lesbian and has flirted with her in the past, and so, Gretchen's reasoning goes, he should be relatively easy for Laura to seduce. Yet the prospect of sleeping with a man, which Laura has never done, is not something she wants to consider. Laura becoming even more agitated when she learns Gretchen has set up the assignation with Chuck for that very night. Though her wanting to please Gretchen, coupled with the not quite unconscious realization that Gretchen will never give up on this issue until she gets her way, prompts Laura to reluctantly agree to the plan.

However Chuck turns out to be not at all the stereotypical male who just wants sex with a woman, but is in fact a rather nice guy. Lured to Gretchen and Laura's apartment after all traces of the two women's relationship have been removed - shades of La Cage aux Folles - Chuck learns Gretchen has been "unexpectedly" called away, with Laura, claming to be a neighbor, waiting there instead. After some awkward small talk and a drink or two, Laura finds herself opening up to Chuck, talking to him about her career, her personal insecurities and about how people interact in general, all of which Chick responds to with interesting and insightful opinions. Eventually the inevitable issue of where the two go from there emerges, the after effects of which are hilariously explored in Act II.

The question of how honest one should be forms the through line of the story, making the play, which centers on the subjects of family and relationships, both fascinating and delightful to watch. It also helps that the characters are well-defined, with the dialogue working beautifully throughout. Be it satirically sharp or quietly full of meaning. The script, coupled with David Cromer's expert direction, continually taking the play from comedy to farce to quiet drama and back again. 

If there is one major problem with Woman or Nothing, it's the ending, which finishes things up too neatly without really answering anything. There are a number of issues left unresolved and it's almost as if there's a missing final beat to the story that needs to be included in order to make for a more definite, though not necessarily complete conclusion. 

Pourfar makes a wonderful Laura. A strong yet vulnerable woman, someone who's not classically pretty and who worries about getting older while also battling various insecurities and unresolved issues. Among said issues being a rather contentious relationship with her mother Dorene (Deborah Rush). Yet underneath her airs of terminal resignation, Laura has a quiet core of inner strength allowing her handle whatever she faces. Even if she doesn't always realize it at the time. One can't help but wonder how the outcome of events depicted in the play will ultimately effect Laura and Gretchen's relationship, one having been changed by what went on, the other not having changed at all.

Feiffer works well as Gretchen, the weakest character in the piece in the way her character was conceived - pun intended. A woman who fixes her mind on a goal and who determinedly goes about achieving it may be okay in the courtroom, but she's a bit lacking when it comes to human interaction. Though there's no doubt of Gretchen's love for Laura and she clearly sees having a child to be the next step in their relationship, she doesn't consider how other people will be affected by her plans even as she tries to make things as uncomplicated as possible. This is shown in her selection of Chuck as the biological father, Gretchen knowing that he'll soon be moving out of state so they'll never have to see him again or tell him that he got Laura pregnant.

Beitzel is quite good as Chuck, the actor playing him neither as callow or as a white night, coming off as both interesting and sympathetic, thus allowing the audience to see the character as more than just potential father material. It also helps that Pourfar and Beitzel have a quiet chemistry together, the two playing off each other well, and their scenes having a sort of uneasy first date feel at times. Initially filled with halting communication, yet both eventually arriving at a sort of mutual understanding and respect.

Deborah Rush basically steals the show as Laura's narcissistic mother. Completely unflappable, even when she sees Chuck coming out of her daughter's bedroom, as well as self assured with a wry sense of superiority, Dorene comes in like a silent hurricane, leveling Laura time and again with a quiet remark or observation, against which Laura can do nothing but sputter in disbelief. Dorene's doesn't always come across as completely real, though in this scenario she's not required to be. She also has the best lines in the play, all delivered with impeccable timing. This being another example of the actors and director working well together. It's also interesting to note that Laura is more like her mother than she would ever care to admit, her distress about this fact continually in evidence whenever she says or does something that mirrors Dorene in any way.

Michele Spadaro's set of Gretchen and Laura's New York apartment is nicely eclectic, though it would have been nice if could have been a little less neat. A few books or newspapers in a pile somewhere would have given it that more of a lived-in look instead of a showroom effect.

Amusing and lightweight at times, quite serious at others, Woman or Nothing offers up an interesting tale which leaves too many questions at the end, but is still an enjoyable experience. Not to mention having some great acting and directorial work.

Women or Nothing
by Ethan Coen

Featuring: Robert Beitzel (Chuck), Halley Feiffer (Gretchen), Susan Pourfar (Laura), Deborah Rush (Dorene)

Sets: Michelle Spadaro
Costumes: Sarah Laux
Lights: Bradley King
Original Music & Sound: Daniel Kluger
Casting: Telsey + Company, Will Cantler, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Richard A. Hodge
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Production Manager: Michael Wade
Associate Artistic Director: Christian Parker
General Manager: Jamie Tyrol
Directed by David Cromer

Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street

Tickets: 866-811-4111 or www.atlantictheater.org

Running Time: 1 Hour, 50 Minutes, including intermission

Closes: October 13, 2013

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