Ethan Coen’s ‘Women’ Troll for the Right Stuff: Theater

Like a classic thriller, Ethan Coen’s “Women or Nothing” begins with questions.

Why is the woman alone at center stage silently surveying her living room? Why does she remove the framed photographs and furtively stash them in the coat closet? What’s she hiding, and from whom?

And what about this second woman, who enters the apartment when the first one disappears, noting the missing pictures before sneaking into the kitchen?

Gretchen (Halley Feiffer), the blond lawyer who hides the photos, and Laura (Susan Pourfar), the brunette concert pianist who notices, are longtime lovers who want a baby. To that end, Gretchen has arranged for a colleague (Robert Beitzel) from her firm to stop by.

It’s a comic setup they hope will end with Mr. Right unwittingly impregnating Laura, who reluctantly agrees to the improbable plan.

Coen is half the fraternal duo responsible for a number of great, strange films (their new “Inside Llewyn Davis” will be featured at the upcoming New York Film Festival). The Atlantic Theater, where “Women or Nothing” is having its world premiere, has been his theatrical home; this is his first full-length play after several programs of one-acts.

Briskly staged by David Cromer (“Nikolai and the Others”), “Women or Nothing” doesn’t make any sense at all, beginning with the central relationship. Every character is a speechifying device, and the speeches are old news: Weren’t we making jokes about sperm banks and anonymous donors ages ago?

But Deborah Rush blows some helium into the works as Laura’s mother, a woman who could give Sam Spade a run for his money as a dogged sniffer out of intimate secrets and no embarrassment about her own.

Through Oct. 13 at the Atlantic Theater/Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St. Information: +1-866-811-4111; Rating: **1/2

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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