BEEBO BRINKER CHRONICLES * Written by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman * Directed by Leigh Silverman * 37 Arts Theatre, New York City.

Last summer the Hourglass Company mounted Leigh Silverman’s elegant staging of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles for a limited run on a minuscule budget at a tiny theater in the East Village. The play, an adaptation by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman of three lesbian pulp novels published in the 1950s by the pseudonymous Ann Bannon, managed the tricky task of portraying sympathetically and realistically the lives of tormented homosexuals in the late 1950s while also slightly sending up the melodrama of it all. Now the show has settled in for a long run at a larger theater uptown in the arts center created by Mikhail Baryshnikov. Along the way, it has acquired a handful of new commercial producers, including Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, following in the footsteps of Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O’Donnell, celebs who put their names and dollars in service of the Broadway shows (The Color Purple, Oprah’s hit, and Taboo, Rosie’s flop). 

Decades before The L Word, before Rosie and k.d. were born, back when Lily and Jane were odd girls just out of high school, Bannon (then a closeted young housewife in Philadelphia) wrote a series of lesbo-licious bodice-rippers with sexy covers and titles like Women in the Shadows, which ended up on the paperback racks at drugstores and supermarkets. They treated readers to stories that combined fervent B-movie romance (remember the bit Lily used to do about the words “seamy, shocking, throbbing, and lurid”?) with a Dickensian portrait of tough-cookie gay life in the Eisenhower era. 

Ryan and Chapman have boiled down three Bannon novels into one story that revolves around Beth (Autumn Dornfeld) and Laura (Marin Ireland), whose college crush sent one escaping into heterosexual marriage and the other flying into the Greenwich Village gay scene. In New York, Laura meets Jack (David Greenspan), an aging gay businessman with whom she eventually settles into a marriage blanc, and the title character (played by Jenn Colella), a charismatic butch-dyke Lothario in a DA haircut and elevator-operator’s coveralls. As a portrait of the period, the play takes place at the intersection of camp and despair. The characters’ fearfulness, tortured romanticism, and outsider defiance are close enough to recognize but far enough away to view with wry humor.

Consider the speech where Jack delivers his backhand marriage proposal: “Goddammit it, Laura, do you want to grow old here in the Village? Have you seen the pitiful old women in their men's oxfords and chopped off hair, stumping around like lost souls, wandering from bar to bar and staring at the pretty kids and weeping because they can't have them anymore...Or living together, two of them, ugly and wrinkled, with nothing to do and nothing to care about but the good old days that are no more? Is that what you want?” That this speech has the audience roaring with laughter is a tribute both to the play’s honest unsentimentality and to the performance by Greenspan, who plays self-hating alcoholic fags with more ironic poignancy than anyone else on earth. 

Downtown, much of the show was played with a deadpan, soap-opera attitude so the audience got to decide what was ridiculous and what sincere. Uptown, the actors play more broadly and the silliness is signaled to the audience, which is less to my taste – but since when did subtle dry wit rule the commercial theater? In particular, Marin Ireland (above left) overdoes Laura’s neurotic freaking out early in the play, throwing herself around like a melodramatic rag doll. Autumn Dornfeld’s Beth captures the lovesick lesbian hidden inside the reluctant mother, and Jenn Colella (above right) walks the stone-butch walk, even if none of the girl-on-girl action is especially believable or steamy. Hunky Bill Dawes (a straight actor who never minds walking around onstage nearly naked) brings real substance to the thankless role of Straight Man in Gay Play. And Carolyn Baeumler pretty much steals the show in three small roles. Even more than Greenspan, she perfectly straddles the line between pulpy drama and wicked comedy – especially as Lili, who squelches Laura’s affair with Beebo by parading around with her big tits wrapped in a bright-red bullet bra.

The Advocate, April 22, 2008