An agreeably minor comedy in both scope and key, Ethan Coen’s Women or Nothing opens with a surefire farcical premise and then, to its credit, refuses to fire the surest shots. Gretchen and Laura, a pair of moneyed lesbians eager to have a child, opt out of sperm banks and surrogacy, instead hatching a plan for Laura, an abrasive and neurotic concert pianist, to seduce a schnook in order to obtain the stuff of life the old-fashioned way. Said schnook, already the handsome father of a gorgeous daughter, has nice genes and is about to move from New York to Florida, so, seriously, what could go wrong?
A setup like this, so thick with lies and sex, might usually descend into predictable comic mayhem, all slamming doors and that sitcom-like moment of one character coming this close to telling another the truth. But Coen, director David Cromer, and the cast are more interested in people than mix-ups. Again and again, even as it offers hugely satisfying laughs, the show emphasizes the emotional toll of such high-stakes deceptions. The price for such seriousness is some comic momentum, unfortunately. The opening scene, in which lawyer Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) cajoles her partner into agreeing to the sneaky sperm-nabbing, wears on too long and asks us to believe that these women who otherwise behave reasonably would team up for a trick so low.
But when the scheme is set in motion, the play springs to life, and Coen finds some pathos in the tension between human decency and the demands of comedy plotting. As Laura, the uncertain seductress, Susan Pourfar is all nerves and anxious chatter. Alone with Chuck (the schnook, played with warm uncomprehension by Robert Beitzel), she mixes ghastly drinks from a Cosmo Gretchen bought to help sell the illusion of carefree heterosexuality. Throughout the long, strong second scene, Laura’s blood alcohol level rises, and her small talk grows grand, revealing, philosophical, and deeply funny. The guy she’s supposed to woo looks steamrollered—but also charmed, and he’s smart enough to duck questions like this doozy, which Laura builds to with hilarious fire: “So now, the presumptuous question I was going to ask, Chuck, before you introduced irrelevancies—the question is: How did I become such an asshole?”
As scenarios go, gay characters dabbling in straight sex is a fraught one—have you seen Spike Lee’s lesbians-love-dick mess She Hate Me? But here it’s clear that Laura, who does get a little turned on, is enjoying a new intimacy—and the freedom to expose truths about herself, even as she’s lying—rather than discovering that she’s been wrong about who she is. What’s less clear is what Chuck is getting out of it, or why this seemingly smart guy of 2013 seems poised for a one-night stand with a woman he doesn’t know, apparently without a condom.
All that occurs in a long, rainy scene in a well-appointed loft apartment. (The set, a beauty of high-end tchotchkes, is designed by Michele Spadaro.) The seduction is one-upped after intermission with the arrival of Deborah Rush as Laura’s mother. She’s a piece of work that today only a Coen could write so well: a fast-talking, flat-affected society doyenne whose every line is an impeccably timed half-paragraph gush of condescension, passive-aggression, and occasional wisdom. Some of her words are pearls; more are poison darts. Here she is on Laura and Gretchen’s efforts to procreate: “You’re looking for semen, not some uncanny substance produced only by a rare breed of silkworm when the Nile is in flood. Semen. Every dope on the street has a teaspoonful or so.” Then, as if to demonstrate the value of the old ways of doing things, Rush brings the house down with the simplest, oldest line of them all, one that would work in the farce that Coen chose not to write: “The plot thickens.”
The show peaks there, but what follows is also funny and a little sad. Coen eschews the confrontations and revelations such a story would seem to demand. Instead, he shows us something altogether more tender—these characters, a little shaken, having made their decisions and finding a way to live on with them.