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Review: Ethan Coen’s new play twisted, of course

September 17, 2013

NEW YORK (AP) — Ethan Coen waxes entertainingly absurd on motherhood and deception, conjoining those themes in his first full-length play, the entertaining comedy “Women Or Nothing.”

The satirical, screwball-noirish production is world premiering off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company, where it opened Monday night. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Coen, who has written several short plays for the Atlantic, is best known for creating popular films with his brother Joel, including “No Country for Old Men,” ″Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

David Cromer directs a stylishly comedic cast of four, who ably represent their characters as real people without losing any of their absurd qualities or missing a beat with the quip-laden dialogue.

Deborah Pourfar is delightfully uptight as prim concert pianist Laura, whose long-time girlfriend Gretchen (a sweetly kooky portrayal by Halley Pfeiffer) tries to persuade her to sleep with a man she knows so they can have a baby together by “looking the genes in the eye.” The sit-com aspect is that they don’t want the man to know he’s fathering their child.

While logical Laura wants the proven background checks she thinks a sperm clinic would provide for donors, flighty Gretchen launches into a screed about the kind of “social retards” that would “mate with glassware” at such a place.

Robert Beitzel smoothly handles the difficult job of making the unwitting sperm-donor Chuck a likable, decent guy who doesn’t question why Laura wants to sleep with him. Pourfar gives Laura’s would-be flirtation with Chuck a hilariously serious, at times sternly confrontational tone, after Gretchen invites him over, then disappears.

Deborah Rush is masterful as Laura’s overbearing, free-spirited mother, Dorene, who arrives at an inopportune time and politely refuses to leave. Rush’s delivery of her dialogue is a triumph of delicate venom. She spits out Dorene’s seemingly nonsensical thoughts or careless needling of her daughter with a precise diction ever-so-faintly echoed in Pourfar’s measured delivery of Laura’s lines.

As brittle, narcissistic Dorene casually pours out shocking secrets long-buried in their family past, Pourfar comically reels around in shock. Yet Dorene reveals a concerned maternal side when she gently uncovers the truth from Chuck about what’s really going on — still without him figuring it out. In a typical Coen twist, the play ends with both laughter and darkness.

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