At first, it seems that Ethan Coen's "Women or Nothing" is going to be a light, brittle, improbable -- and probably annoying -- sketch comedy about a couple of privileged New York lesbians who trick a man into making them a baby.
Are first impressions ever wrong.
After that setup, Coen (half the team of sibling movie wizards) spins us deeper and deeper into disturbing pools of relationships, lined with slippery wisdom and unforeseeable twists held afloat with the truth-telling relief of humor.
In recent years, Coen has moonlighted as what he calls a "play hobbyist" of smart, darkly loopy little one acts for the Atlantic Theater. (Ignore completely his awful playlet seen on Broadway in a Woody Allen / Elaine May showcase in 2011.)
With "Women or Nothing," he has not only written his first full-length play. He has created a rich, giddily satisfying work that, in just a hyper-articulate hour and 45 minutes, explores a day and a half of what feels identifiable and bizarre enough to be something like real life.
Don't be fooled by the baby-hunger cliche, the easy punchlines about Florida and what would seem to be the standard-issue overbearing mother with secrets to reveal. Characters this multifaceted don't hang around in new plays that often.
Directed with a kaleidoscope of emotional colors by David Cromer, this expert quartet of actors explores and exploits what one character nails as "the delusory pursuit of control." Susan Pourfar is both intellectually forbidding and touchingly innocent as Laura, the rigorous, self-questioning concert pianist who gets cornered by partner Gretchen into getting impregnated by a nice guy from Gretchen's law firm.
Halley Feiffer is formidably spirited as Gretchen, alas, Coen's least interesting character. Robert Beitzel makes niceness into something unique and extraordinarily subtle as the gentleman caller, while Deborah Rush, wondrous as Laura's silver-fox mother, sweeps in to talk out of so many sides of her face that we think she might dislodge its groomed perfection.
Much gets done in small corners of Michele Spadaro's expansive, tastefully eclectic loft set. Every so often, we can hear Coen working too hard at marvelous dialogue, and we can't help but wonder why smart strangers don't use condoms. If they did, of course, we would not have a work that catapults Coen from hobbyist to major playwright.
WHAT "Women or Nothing"
WHERE Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St.
INFO $65; 866-811-4111; atlantictheater.org
BOTTOM LINEEthan Coen: major playwright