Filmmaker and self-declared “gentleman playwright” Ethan Coen debuts his first full-length play, “Women or Nothing,” at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City this month, which has already been granted an extended release through October 13.
A breezy, and arguably audacious, take on the ethics of lesbian baby-making from the acclaimed satirist behind such films (in collaboration with his brother, Joel) as Fargo and The Big Lebowski, I couldn’t help but to wonder if Coen’s watched the pilot episode of The L Word and thought, “The penis. The pussy. The baby…. I can do this!”
Any lesbian or queer woman will easily recall the pilot episode of The L Word in which Bette and Tina, desperate for LE BEBEH, first solicit their artist friend Jean-Paul for his sperm. He agrees—on the condition that he gets to have sex with Tina. Both Tina and Bette refuse, but later that evening they meet a youngish, artist guy and bring him back to their house for a threesome; that is, for some baby-making. As clothes are being shed, the guy reaches for a condom and TiBette tell him he doesn’t need one. Immediately, he knows their plan and withdraws: “Why is it whenever dykes want to have sex with a guy it’s when they’re trying to get his sperm?,” he says as he gathers up his shirt and leaves.
This pilot aired in 2004. Coen basically adapts this premise and focuses his roughly 90 minute play on the ethical questions involved in a lesbian couple’s decision to pursue parenthood through the vehicle of a real, live man as opposed to a vial of sperm. And, sure, anyone can ponder the ethics of conceptualizing interpersonal relations in terms of “use-value”; yet I couldn’t help—as I surveyed (what appeared to me to be) the very straight, very white, and very old audience seated in the Linda Gross Theater waiting for the lights to dim—but to meditate on Sarah Schulman’s critique of the literary and theater industries in Ties That Bind about the unapologetic exclusion of lesbians from cultural production, on the stage, on the page, and on the screen:
There is still no lesbian play in the American repertoire, and I promise that that is not because all the men are better writers…. Most lesbian writers working with primary lesbian content for the stage have been channeled into performance or performative-styled live work…. The more respected, more rewarded, and more authoritative form of theatre is still restricted to men, and generally white men.” (134-143)
Fuming with anger at patriarchy writ large, the first half of the play did nothing to abate this feeling. If anything, my anger was whetted with an increasing skepticism, as I found various plot points and performative aspects unconvincing, from the seemingly inconsequential (the shabby ‘70s chic did not fit the downtown, Manhattan, wealthy femme-lesbian vibe of the couple) to critically elemental, in terms of realism (particularly, the two women didn’t make a believable couple; they didn’t seem to love each other, or love each other enough 1) for one of them to break her Gold Stardom 2) in order to have a baby).
If the objective of Women or Nothing is to offer variegated musings as social commentary on reproduction in the age of both lesbianism and of technology, then the satire must be based in realism. As an actual Gold Star lesbian, Coen’s “lesbian world” lacked a certain kind of viability one attains by actually being a lesbian who lives in a queer world. Not only were components of the plot underdeveloped—largely because the narrative spans less than twenty-four hours and therefore feels rushed and hurriedly slapped together—but there was an overarching disjointedness resulting from a medley of awkwardness, from the exaggerated affectation of Laura’s clearly fabricated uppity British accent to Gretchen’s enjoinder to Laura to pick between “her dignity and a child” in an attempt to get her to sleep with her male co-worker, Chuck. Yes, this choice, between dignity and a child, is presented as the fundamental conflict between the couple.
Gretchen, the blonde-femme-in-a-dress, is reproductively challenged, so the burden of baby-making rests with Laura, who would prefer to go the classic route of vetting the right sperm donor through a fertility clinic. Gretchen dismisses this a-personal process of injecting sperm as dubious, and she implores Laura that they “meet the sperm” in the flesh in order to gauge its viability; like judging the contents by its cover. “It’s nature,” she claims; “sleeping with a man isn’t such a big deal.” Somehow this highly problematic argument persuades Laura, a Gold Star lesbian who seems educated and cultured (she is a world renowned classical pianist). She agrees to have sex with Chuck that night, and both women agree that it will be an early gift for Laura, whose birthday is the next day.
It is with the arrival of Laura’s mother, Dorene, fantastically portrayed by Deborah Rush, that the audience finds an anchor in this disengaged play. Dorene, who discovers her Gold-Star-lesbian daughter in post coital disarray alongside an equally semi-dressed Chuck, is the only character on stage who has the audience’s omniscience. She intuits Laura and Gretchen’s plot to seduce Chuck for his sperm, and she, through a private conversation with Chuck, knows that he is not the biological father of his daughter—a fact that ultimately negates Gretchen’s point that Chuck’s sperm is great because his daughter, who she has met a handful of times, is a perfect child.
Dorene is a wonderfully insightful character whose function is to not only make the play cohere in terms of plot, theme, and tone, but to personify satire on stage in order to give Coen’s social commentary some substance. Again, Rush excels and has brilliant comic timing. Funny, charming, and sagacious, she effortlessly delivers what could be considered the play’s ultimate, ironic takeaway: “Nature absorbs our mistakes and moves on.”
Women or Nothing is playing at the Atlantic Theater now through October 13.