Reviewed by David Spencer
[Originally, I reviewed The Beebo Brinker Chronicles alongside The Ritz, as the original, limited run of the first coincided with the revival of the second, and in some ways they seemed a matched set -- and you can read the original review here. What follows very closely resembles the original text of the first notice’s Beebo section, with minor changes to adapt it as a stand-alone review and discuss a cast change.]
To understand the significance of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, you have to understand the significance of novelist Ann Bannon, the pseudonymous by-line of Ann Weldy. In the late 50s and early 60s, she wrote a series of novels that examined the contemporary lives of lesbians: the closeted ones, the out ones, the ones making the decision to leave marriages and claim their homosexuality, the ones who arranged partnerships of convenience with gay men, the better to raise families in mainstream society...and she did this without the pall of shame or the cynicism of cheap-thrill titillation. (Though Ms. Bannon has admitted that, trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, as she was at the time she wrote the books, she projected a good deal of fantasy and yearning into them.) Oh, indeed, in style and narrative energy they certainly held their own as paperback originals (there they were on the racks with the same suggestive covers as the Gold Medal noir thrillers with which they shared the imprint, and among the bestselling books in the line), but Bannon's were nonetheless the first novels that validated both the secret and not-so-secret lesbian communities; indeed, for some women, these were the books that quite literally gave them permission to feel good about themselves. And Beebo Brinker, a tough, butch lesbian with a more vulnerable nature than she cares to put on display, is a character who appears in all the books.
Any dramatization of them requires a subtle, difficult, balancing act of elements. Remember, Ms. Bannon's books were a product of their era and a certain amount of sensationalistic discovery came with the territory (the same kind that informs issue-driven TV and movies of the era as well, where any victory by a Rod Serling [Requiem for a Heavyweight] or a Paddy Chayefsky [Marty] or an Abby Mann [Judgment at Nuremberg] was accompanied by the sound of a taboo breaking). Director Leigh Silverman has opted for a playing style commensurate with melodrama of the period-pitched slightly higher than realism, the dialogue paced slightly faster than normal speech-mixed in with a little old-fashioned soap opera sensibility.
Given this choice, there are two usual ways in which she might have skewed the production: toward parody or toward pastiche (by which I mean dedicated, pointed emulation). But somehow, interestingly, Ms. Silverman has managed both, without the one devaluing the other, sometimes alternately, at times simultaneously. For the most part she allows the somewhat more innocent melodrama to speak for itself, so that we always take the characters, and their plight, seriously. Although every now and again, Ms. Silverman kicks things into an even higher gear still, by way of winking at the audience that she knows that we know how overblown certain expressed sentiments are. (The afoementioned melodrama includes the young lesbian new to NY [Autumn Dornfeld], looking for love with straight women who remind her of her early one true love-the love who left her to get married; and that one true love [Marin Ireland], who, unbeknownst to her former lover, is obsessing just as much about what she lost, and looking to get out of a marriage for which she holds no passion.)
For my money, I wonder -- merely wonder, mind -- if the delivery might all have been taken down a notch. Even in the scenes where, no pun intended, the drama is played straight. It seems to me that the script by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman (which adapts key threads of three Bannon novels -- I Am a Woman, Woman in the Shadows, Journey to a Woman -- into a brisk, intermissionless 90 minutes) doesn't really need the nod of commentary or even a playing style that's quite such a self-aware homage, because the tone and tenor of the period need no goosing to emerge from the text in relief. One might argue that a latter-day script in this mold demands that a knowing perspective be present on the surface, but I'm not so sure. It might risk some unintentional laughter to let the text be that exposed, but given the reaction of the audience I attended with, I think the characters and story are strong enough that such laughter could only be affectionate and understanding.
Indeed, though, even with things played hotter, the cast of six -- also including downtown gay-theatre mainstay David Greenspan as a middle aged bachelor tired of "the lifestyle" and looking to settle down and raise a family; Bill Dawes and Carolyn Baeumler as various types, straight and gay; and of course Jenn Colella as the eponymous Beebo -- assay it all with sensitivity, real-stakes sincerity and Swiss-watch precision. (It's interesting to note, too, that Ms. Colella -- not unlike her predecessor in the 4th Street limited engagement, Anna Foss Wilson -- is somewhat more petite and compact than the formidable six-foot tall butch powerhouse described in the novels, described onstage too in transitional narrative lifted from Ms. Bannon's prose; but the play doesn't change its description to suit the actress; rather the production lets her create her own bigness through performance, in the kind of magical collusion between actor and audience that can only happen in the theatre. I will say that the excellent Ms. Colella has to work her archetype a bit harder than Ms. Wilson in the opening minutes during which she establishes her territory, for the simple reason that her speaking voice isn’t as deep or as resonant. And because the archetype is so stark and iconic, the difference is an interesting study in the art of casting.)
The previous off-off Broadway run sold out even before opening. That's a testament to Ms. Bannon. The transfer now at 37 Arts is open-ended And that's a testament to the production. And to a segment of the audience that has needed to claim their own mainstream territory for a long time...