The Beebo Brinker Chronicles: An Earnest, Well-Intentioned Play That Falls Flat

The set-up:

Celebration Theatre specializes in gay theater, and brought to Houston the award-winning play The Temperamentals, followed up with the sensitive drama Next Fall, and now brings to the stage The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, a play set in Greenwich Village in the '50s centering on the lives and loves of lesbians.

The execution: The script is adapted from the pulp fiction lesbian novels of Ann Bannon. The two female authors (Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman) are sincere in their depiction of the characters, resisting the temptation to add wit and humor through parody. The result is, predictably enough, earnest, so earnest that it won an award for its fair and accurate portrayal of gays and lesbians. I wish they had given in to the temptation for parody, as the characters here are so unhappy, so crudely drawn, and the motivations so ridiculous, that to call them cardboard would not be fair to cardboard.

The playwrights must have taken a class that said there has to be conflict on every page, and they adhere to this principle slavishly, even though the conflicts are usually as trivial as domestic bickering.

We have a wife abandon husband and children to "find herself", another woman in search of herself gives up and marries a gay man afflicted with self-loathing, and enough coincidences for several novels, all centered around a gay bar.

This crowd was in the wrong bar- they could have crossed the street to have a 35-cent bottle of Budweiser at Louie's Tavern and chat with Jimmy Dean and Steve McQueen before they went to Hollywood, with Mary Travers before she met Peter and Paul, or with Edward Albee when he was a bicycle messenger - and have a steak and salad for 99 cents. Greenwich Village in the '50s was in fact a paradise. As Auntie Mame put it "Life's a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death."

The director Randall Jobe followed the intentions of the authors, as did the actors, so we have sincerity aplenty, and it is tedious indeed, though there are some laughs. The good news is that the lesbians here tend to be beauties, with good figures, but that is probably sexist and my editor will take it out. I especially liked Autumn Clack, in a bad blond wig, as Marcie, giving us a softer Jean Harlow impersonation that is endearing. Margaret Lewis plays Laura, carrying a torch for a lost love and badly in need of therapy or at least Sex Addicts Anonymous, as she searches, searches, searches for lovers to "fix" her.

Darin Montemayor looked unhappy with her husband but cheered up considerably once she hit the fleshpots of New York. The talented Elizabeth Marshall Black is seriously miscast as a butch lesbian, and all the mannish costumes they make her don -- everything except a tuxedo -- don't help. And the men? Taylor Biltoft is quite good in a minor role, Blake Alexander is intense and passionate as the abandoned husband, and Steve Bullitt is convincing as a flamboyant man-about-town.

The script has a great number of short scenes, unfortunately requiring set changes as staged here. The music covering the blackouts is romantic and entertaining, but the constant interrupting lets air out of the balloon. A set mishap was quickly corrected. I loved the leopard-skin chaise lounge, perfect for Marcie, but seriously question the Little-Bo-Peep party outfit for Laura.

Gay life in the '50s, before the Stonewall Rebellion ,was underground and very different from what it is today. Some have compared it to the early days of Christianity, secretive and using symbols to identify one's "religion" - the comparison is not ill-founded. There's an exciting story to be told about this largely un-chronicled era, but this play isn't it.

The verdict: An awkward adaption of some pulp fiction novels provides examples of women searching for their sexual identity, and finding lovers to help them explore it, but never rises above the level of sincere good intentions, rather like film noir but without the noir.

The Beebo Brinker Chronicles continues through December 1, from Celebration Theatre at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Dr. For information or ticketing, call 832-303-4758 or contact www.celebrationtheatre.com.

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