Dancing in the Lesbian Bar

Show #25: The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, Brava! for Women in the Arts, February 26.

Michael Medici, Summer Serafin, Adam Yazbeck and Liz Anderson. Photo by Charles Villyard

Postponed from artistic director Raelle Myrick-Hodges’s inaugural season last year at Brava! for Women in the Arts, the West Coast premiere of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles was finally unveiled at Brava! last Friday to an enthusiastic opening-night crowd that guffawed at the melodrama and whooped at the sex scenes.

An Off-Broadway hit in two separate runs in 2007 and 2008, Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman’s stage adaptation of Sacramento author Ann Bannon’s series of lesbian pulp novels of the late 1950s and early 1960s carries a good deal of camp appeal not by sending up vintage genre fiction but by being true to its admixture of cynical bon mots and over-the-top earnestness. The lead characters take turns delivering bits of hard-boiled narration between scenes. It’s full of lines like “Don’t do this–you’re playing with fire,” and there’s a priceless moment when heroine Laura’s walking down the street admiring women’s silhouettes and she exclaims, “I just love them!  I love them all!”

Myrick-Hodges’s staging is a little rough around the edges, but keeps things snappy and pulpy as all get out, with stylized performances, a whole lot of stage smoking and dialogue steeped in B-movie melodrama. Even at their sharpest, the actors are representing familiar types as much as they are particular characters.

Frames and wallpapered panels descend from above to create different rooms to generally pleasing effect in Matt McAdon’s hard-working set, although on opening night the panels got caught on furniture and more often than not hung in front of the band during songs between scenes.  Michelle Mulholland has whipped up some nice vintage getups for the cast. It is, however, a little jarring to see a mohawked stagehand moving scenery with the retro-attired cast between scenes. A fedora may be in order.

A sultry jazz combo directed by bassist Caroline Chung and fronted by singer Shakira De Abreu plays in an elevated box behind the actors, dishing out loungy renditions of songs like “In My Life,” “Crazy,” “I’ve Got Your Picture” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” Micaela Nerguizian sound design also includes a few recorded bits of scene-setting period color, from Nina Simone to the Andy Griffith theme to Ed Sullivan introducing the Beatles.

There’s a lot of Dorothy Gale in Summer Serafin’s wide-eyed ingénue Laura, the Midwestern gal newly arrived in New York City and trying to get over the woman who broke her heart, which makes it all the more amusing when she pounces on a lover with gusto. Erin Maxwell oozes smarmy charisma as Beebo Brinker, a suave, strutting butch who comes on strong to every woman she meets but falls hard for Laura. Michael Medici provides an arch confidant as barely-closeted gay man Jack Mann, who always called Laura “Mother,” while Beebo calls her “Bo Peep.”

Jayne Deely is pleasant enough but stiff and artificial as Beth, the one who got away, who feels trapped in the unhappy marriage she chose over Laura. Adam Yazbeck walks the line between dangerously indignant and pleadingly eager to please as Beth’s husband Charlie, who can’t please her sexually because she’s not actually into guys, and he’s completely transformed as Laura’s roommate Marcie’s rowdy hipster boyfriend Burr, enough so that at first I didn’t realize the two were the same actor.

Liz Anderson in quite entertaining as straight and not-too-bright roommate Marcie, who’s titillated by Laura’s interest and flirts with her despite herself. “Too many Marcies and you commit suicide,” our heroine is told when she gets all worked up over her. “That’s what it means to be gay, Laura.”

“We can’t think straight, because we always think gay,” Jack says, and he’s all too serious. Even in a play peopled entirely by gay people and the straights who love them, with the world outside as invisible as half the characters’ means of support, it’s the 1950s and ‘60s, and the stakes are high. It doesn’t make the language seem any less over the top, but it’s helpful to remind ourselves that the world of the books was a period where gay characters in popular media, when they showed up at all, often ended up dead, just like prostitutes and unwed mothers. These are presumably the good old days the Fox News types are always reminiscing about.

The time lapse between the first two scenes is unclear until late in the second act: Beth’s domestic argument with her husband looks like it might be immediately after she leaves Laura at the train station, when we later learn it’s years later—and in fact years after the scene that immediately follows it when Laura first arrives in Greenwich Village.

Two characters are constant background presences in all the bar scenes, listening in on all the conversations, but don’t emerge as speaking parts until the second act: Khamara Pettus as jaded lesbian romance novelist Nina Spicer and Rebecca Poretsky as the abrasive, spiteful bartender Lily. It’s nice to find out who they are and why they’ve been acting the way they have, but it also seems awkward that we haven’t been introduced before.

It’s formulaic stuff, but that’s what you look for from torrid romances, just as Beth voraciously devours Nina’s similar novels in the play itself. “It’s hard to take a walking, talking cliché serious,” the blasé Nina tells Beth, and as the hooting opening night audience demonstrated, that’s a big part of the play’s appeal.

The Beebo Brinker Chronicles run through March 13 at Brava! for Women in the Arts, 2781 24th St., San Francisco. http://www.brava.org

Bonus link: My January 2009 Theatre Bay Area profile of Raelle Myrick-Hodges.

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