Ethan Coen, half of the Oscar-winning writing-directing team known as the Coen brothers, is no stranger to the theater. But until now, he has confined himself to one-act comic sketches notable for their cockeyed sensibility though not usually their dramatic polish. Typically, they are gathered together in threes to form an evening of theater. So perhaps it's no surprise that his first full-length play, Women or Nothing, playing through Oct. 13 at the Atlantic Theater Company's Off Broadway Linda Gross Theater, is neatly divided into three scenes.
All three are set in the well-appointed urban apartment of Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) and Laura (Susan Pourfar), a lesbian couple hoping to have a child of their own. (The scenic design, including a mysteriously unplayed piano in a loft space with a spiral staircase to it, is by Michele Spadaro.) Instead of employing the usual sperm donor ("Do we want a baby whose father masturbates in a lab? Under fluourescent lights?" asks Gretchen), the couple curiously decide to recruit one of Gretchen's young work colleagues, Chuck (Robert Beitzel, charming and nonthreatening as a labrador retriever), to unwittingly seduce Laura.
The premise is absurd, of course, made more so when Laura reveals that she's a gold-star lesbian, one who's never slept with a man before. ("The gold star does it get you stuff?" asks Chuck.) And the arrival of Laura's free-spirited mother, Dorene (a deliciously crisp Deborah Rush) suggests that we might be treated to a truly modern update on the traditional bedroom farce. Not quite.
Certainly all the ingredients are in place: a promising setup, a sterling cast, crisp direction by David Cromer, and some hilarious banter between various characters. But Women or Nothing feels undercooked. The characters still seem more like types, speaking in ways that only fictional people do (''I am in deadly earnest, Gretchen,'' Laura says at one point). More tellingly, the final act isn't so much ended as abandoned. The lights fade and the audience expectantly waits for another scene, a more satisfying conclusion with fewer unanswered (and unexplored) questions. For starters, why build an elaborate space for a baby-grand piano that forever hovers over the action but is never once played? C+