About the author:
What a year it’s been for actress and playwright Halley Feiffer! She co-wrote and starred in the well-reviewed film comedy He’s Way More Famous Than You, and her play How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them will be produced off-Broadway by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater beginning October 23. Rather than taking a late summer break, the smart, self-deprecating and super-talented Feiffer is starring in Ethan Coen’s first full-length play, Women or Nothing, at Atlantic Theater Company. Given her background as the daughter of celebrated writers (Jules Feiffer and Jenny Allen) and her own success on and off stage, Broadway.com asked the in-demand 28-year-old to share her insights into working with four-time Oscar winner Coen and celebrated director David Cromer.
When a friend of mine told me she was auditioning for the new Ethan Coen play that David Cromer was directing at the Atlantic, I was instantly jealous. “What’s it about?” I asked. “It’s about two middle-aged lesbians who are trying to have a baby,” she told me. “I’d be perfect for that!” I replied. “I’m a middle-aged lesbian!” “No you’re not,” she said, to which I countered: “Well, I’m trying to have a baby.” “That’s not true either,” she said, which I couldn’t really argue with.
I worked with Cromer in The House of Blue Leaves three years ago, something I had wanted to do since I auditioned for Our Town a year before that. I read the scene in which Emily is nervously asking her mother if she is pretty enough to attract the interest of the opposite sex, and even in the audition room, there was something about the way David worked that fascinated me. He is obsessed with exploring the paradox of a scene—he searches for the choice that feels strange and out-there and yet totally right. And as weird as it may sound at first, it always works. He gave me a note in that audition to focus more on the string beans I was shelling than on my scene partner. And I was like: “I love you.”
I acted my little heart out in that Our Town audition and left the building thinking, “That was pretty amazing—I am very excited for my agent to call me and tell me I got that part! I wonder where I will be when it happens…I wonder if I should go buy some string beans right now and go home and shell them so that when my agent calls I can be like, ‘Hold on, let me put down these string beans I’m shelling!’ And then later when people ask me, “Oh my god where were you when you found out you booked the part of Emily in Our Town?? I can be like: ‘It was so weird—I was literally shelling string beans when I found out I got the part! Just like Emily is in the scene!”
Needless to say, I didn’t get the part.
But that made me love David Cromer even more. Just like in dating, rejection makes the heart grow fonder (okay maybe that is only a slightly disturbed person’s experience of dating), and I became even more intent on one day working with him. When I booked the part the Little Nun in his revival of The House of Blue Leaves, I was like: “It’s on.”
Working with him on that show, I got to see how his unique approach to a text gives birth to productions that are at once sprawling and intimate, that simultaneously lift your soul and break your heart. What makes Cromer’s shows so brilliant is that they feel at once highly theatrical and yet completely relatable. You feel that you are watching people you know, and instantly love, in a stunningly stylized theatrical setting. He achieves this thrilling effect by striving wholeheartedly to put people—not just characters, but living, breathing, humans—on stage. Humans who remind you of someone: yourself. Cromer is excited by the unique potential the theater has to hold a mirror up to its audience, to show us sides of ourselves that we love, that we hate, that can be funny or heartbreaking or—perhaps best of all—both.
When I did eventually get an audition for Ethan Coen’s play and was sent the script, I became even more excited about the project because I could see instantly why Coen and Cromer would be such a fierce combination. Coen’s writing in his brilliant films is drenched in the kind of humanity that Cromer is a master of exploring. Coen’s characters are always tremendously flawed and also hugely lovable—and they employ the same kind of paradox Cromer is so wonderful at bringing to light. The Dude in The Big Lebowski is someone you would not want within three feet of your children, and yet you would like to hang out with him. Javier Bardem’s character Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men is a repulsive sociopath, and also intoxicatingly sexy. Marge Gunderson in Fargo is an enormously pregnant woman who cannot for the life of her stop pursuing a serial killer. And you love her for it.
One could argue that Women or Nothing is considerably lighter in tone than many of Coen’s films, but I’m not so sure about that. It is a comedy, but it is also a story about incredibly flawed people who often make selfish choices that have to potential to seriously hurt others. And yet, we have to care about them, relate to them, want them to come out all right, see ourselves in them. In the rehearsal room it is so evident that Cromer and Coen are well fitted to each other as collaborators because both of them are interested not in telling a feel-good story about likable characters, but rather in exploring a complicated situation in which characters whose morals are often questionable make choices that could very well be quite wrong.
On the first day of rehearsal, as we were diving into table work, Ethan was explaining a character’s choice to commit an act that is ethically ambiguous, and he said: “It’s like, you kind of know you’re shitty, and you have self-loathing, as any reasonable person has, but you do it anyway.” And we all laughed. I wrote it down, not really knowing why I was writing it down, but knowing I would want to remember it. Now, I think I know why I loved what he said—it was an indication that I was in a room with the kind of artists I really want to work with: people who hear a statement like that and don’t think, “Why would I want to see a play about someone like that?” but instead breathe a sigh of relief, thinking, “Oh good! Then I must be a reasonable person.”
Reasonable, self-loathing, morally confused, essentially good. All these things go hand-in-hand in Ethan Coen and David Cromer’s work. It doesn’t sound like it should make sense. And yet, somehow, it does.