Plotting, Sparring and Storytelling: Women or Nothing Is Mostly in Control, and Old Friends Feels New

'Fetch Clay, Make Man' hits hard but doesn’t always connect, and Mike Daisey isn’t at his best

Hallie Foote, Betty Buckley and Cotter Smith in 'The Old Friends.' (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Hallie Foote, Betty Buckley and Cotter Smith in ‘The Old Friends.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

In a city of acquisitive control freaks, why shouldn’t a woman in need of insemination opt to shop for and select her ideal sperm?

That’s the question underlying Ethan Coen’s very funny, reasonably thoughtful and somewhat clunkily plotted new play, Women or Nothing, which opened Monday night at the Atlantic Theater Company.

Directed by David Cromer with his usual emotionally intense naturalism on a gorgeous detailed bobo loft of a set by Michele Spadaro, Women or Nothing introduces us to a happy, yuppie lesbian couple. Laura (an excellent Susan Pourfar) is a precise and controlling professional pianist. Gretchen (Halley Feiffer), a lawyer, is looser and more nurturing. They want a child but are concerned about the sort of men who become sperm donors. And so they’ve hatched a plan: Gretchen has invited a coworker, Chuck (Robert Beitzel), to drop off some files and stay for dinner; when he arrives, she’ll be conveniently detained out of town, and Laura will be the alleged neighbor, stopping by to let him in. Chuck is handsome, charming, kind, already father to a great kid and, best, about to move away, to follow his ex-wife and their daughter to Florida. “I would not sleep with a normal man,” Laura says, icily, while she’s still considering the plan. “How could I sleep with a man who wants to live in Florida?”

But she does, after an ungainly quasi-seduction involving inexpertly made specialty cocktails and deep, existential, self-analytical conversation. This is also where the playwrighting gets a little sloppier, even as the dialogue stays rapier-sharp. Why is this man, seemingly a catch, so willing to go to bed with this supercilious lesbian? Why is it a given that he won’t use a condom? And why are they all so certain that one heterosexual coupling (well, two, as we learn) will succeed in conception?

In the second act, Laura’s mother, Dorene (Deborah Rush, delightfully droll and haughty) arrives bearing a birthday present for Gretchen. She is surprised but not necessarily discomfited to find Chuck, shirtless, in the apartment. Dorene is a font of revelations: of her own affairs, of how deeply imprinted her manner and mores are in her daughter. She has her own meaningful chat with Chuck, during which she susses out her daughter’s plan—and unearths a secret of Chuck. Every bit as controlling as her daughter, Dorene also seems to believe in letting certain things run their own course—and so she’ll keep that secret.

Mr. Coen’s entertaining play seems to believe the same—that nature has a way of confounding even the most type-A planning. The downpour on the night I attended—which overwhelmed the sturdiest umbrellas and soaked through the selvedgest denim—didn’t hurt his case.

From White People Problems to black nationalism: Fetch Clay, Make Man, which opened last week at New York Theatre Workshop, is a slick, stylized and frequently fascinating look at the friendship between boxing champ Muhammad Ali and early movie star Stepin Fetchit.

Written by Will Power, whose interest was sparked when he spotted a historical photo of Messrs. Ali and Fetchit together, Fetch Clay is set in Lewiston, Maine, in 1965, where Ali is training for his second title match with Sonny Liston. Ali had announced his conversation to Islam and name change after his first Liston fight, and Malcolm X had been killed a few months before this second one. Bow-tied Nation of Islam followers are guarding Ali, and there are concerns that Malcolm’s followers may try to assassinate the champ. Into this historic setting, Mr. Power inserts a series of conversations between Messrs. Ali and Fetchit about what it means to be a black public figure and how that role changed over the course of the 20th century.

As sleekly directed by Des McAnuff, the two leads are magnetic: Ray Fisher as Ali, serious and preening, and K. Todd Freeman as Mr. Fetchit, equal parts proud and abashed, and still the showman. As the two men talk, verbally sparring and connecting, Mr. Power illustrates the challenges for a prominent black man in a white world. Mr. Fetchit, by the 1960s condemned for the stereotypically lazy and stupid characters he played, was also a fine actor and canny businessman, the world’s first and best-paid black movie star. (Richard Masur is funny as William Fox, the cigar-chomping Jewish mogul against whom Mr. Fetchit negotiates.) The controversial boxer, unlike his entourage, understands that Mr. Fetchit’s minstrelsy was the only way for him to be so successful. Ali, meanwhile, is witty and articulate and doesn’t conform to the stereotype of a black athlete. Mr. Fetchit likes and respects the fighter, but he can’t support the Nation of Islam’s separatist ideas. The implication is—and the subsequent history agrees—that Mr. Ali isn’t a separatist, either, but rather that he has joined with the Nation as a way to assert his racial pride and navigate the tumult of the ‘60s.

It can start to seem like there’s too much going on here, a dizzying number of plots and points, arguments about Messrs. Fetchit’s and Ali’s respective places in history, Malcolm X’s murder and the Nation’s politics and Mr. Ali’s marriage to Sonji Clay (played by Nikki M. James, stunning and steely). But despite all that, thanks to Mr. McAnuff and his fine cast, Fetch Clay floats like a butterfly, even if it doesn’t entirely sting like a bee.

Horton Foote, the prolific master dramatist of small-town America, died in 2009, but the Signature Theatre has its hands on an unproduced Foote play, and The Old Friends opened last week at the Signature Center in its world premiere. It’s a pleasure to be back in Harrison, Texas—Mr. Foote’s recurring fictional setting—but it’s surprising to see what’s become of it. Typically, Mr. Foote’s plays are subtle, repressed, lyrical slow burns; in The Old Friends, on the other hand, there’s drinking, gunshots and property destruction and even bossa nova. It’s all of Mr. Foote’s usual themes, played at an unusual intensity. It’s Foote Gothic, and it’s fantastic.

Of course, it was nearly impossible that it wouldn’t be fantastic, given crackerjack cast assembled by the director Michael Wilson, a longtime Foote interpreter who helmed last season’s remarkable revival of Mr. Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. Hallie Foote is there, of course, excellent and rectitudinous as ever, playing a recent widow suddenly reconnected with her childhood flame. Betty Buckley and Veanne Cox give fiery, explosive performances as two rich local matriarchs, each determined to get whatever she wants and as much of it as possible, preferably at the expense of each other and anyone else in their way. There’s the venerable Lois Smith, too, as a near-forgotten old mother-in-law, someone who outlived her usefulness once she signed over her fortune, and the excellent journeyman actor Cotter Smith, as a decent man trying to do the right thing amid all these warring women.