I’m a great fan of Ann Bannon’s lesbian pulp novels, which I read when Naiad Press re-released them in the early 80s. With their lurid, silhouetted covers of women’s figures in poses of contrived agony that foreshadowed the plots so nicely, I enjoyed approximating what a 1950s reader must have felt like, furtively turning their pages. I’ve long thought that the novels should be theatricalized, mostly because the figure of Beebo Brinker is so indelible and dynamic.
Beebo is the iconic, fresh-faced young butch who makes her way to New York from a farm in Wisconsin to save herself from a life of isolation and despair. She’s found in “Greenwich Village” by Jack Mann, the flamboyant, self-hating gay guy who teaches her what it means to be “in the life” in the 1950s. In Bannon’s novels, Beebo progresses from a naïve masculine wanderer to a self-destructive alcoholic, who kills her own dog to recapture a lover’s waning attentions, and engages in otherwise very bad behavior.
As a 1970s lesbian feminist just discovering the history of those who came out before feminism and before Stonewall, Bannon’s novels held great fascination for me, and Beebo herself presented a kind of mysterious allure.
Sadly, I found The Beebo Brinker Chronicles‘s adaptation disappointing. The production seems unsure what to make of Bannon’s stories, unable to decide whether to play them for camp or for real, leaving its actors in a muddle with little plot or character from which to work.
Adapted from three of Bannon’s six novels by Linda Chapman and Kate Moira Ryan, lesbian theatre artists with impeccable credentials, and directed by Leigh Silverman, who’s worked with the Five Lesbian Brothers and recently directed Lisa Kron’s Public Theatre and subsequent Broadway production of Well, Beebo has all the right artistic credentials. But somehow, this 80 minute adaptation gets short circuited by too many little, episodic scenes in which nothing much happens.
The story wanders from place to place, none of them demarcated clearly on the empty, visually uninteresting set. The actors looked hemmed in by each locale for reasons that seem more practical than allegorical. A bar called The Cellar, where Jack brings his straight friends to observe lesbians he refers to as “animals,” is indicated by a counter and a few stools that sit against the stage right wall. The barest suggestion of Jack’s apartment hovers stage left, where he takes in strays like Laura, a recently out lesbian who thinks she is in love with her straight roommate, Marcie. In Laura and Marcie’s apartment, represented by a multi-purpose trundle bed pulled out stage center, the straight girl baits Laura mercilessly, and later confesses that she seduced Laura only to win a bet with her boyfriend.
Meanwhile, in California, Laura’s college girlfriend Beth pines for her lesbian lover, while her husband, Charlie, can’t figure out why Beth no longer likes having sex with him. Curled on the same stage center bed, Beth ponders how she could have rejected Laura’s true love to marry this boring man and have kids she abhors.
And back at Beebo’s place, set again on the one ubiquitous bed, Beebo seduces Laura, only to abuse her. Laura leaves, refusing to let Beebo possess her. To complete the circle, Beebo eventually lures in Beth, after Beth finally leaves her husband to travel from California to New York to find her long-lost Laura. But by the time Beth lands in New York—nine years later—Laura has settled into a marriage of convenience with Jack that’s produced an artificially inseminated daughter. Laura rather brutally rejects Beth’s nostalgic amorous protestations and sends her hustling into to the dubious protection of Beebo’s arms.
The Beebo Brinker Chronicles’s rather twisted plot has all the makings of a juicy lesbian melodrama. But the dialogue is curiously flat, corny without the ironic inflections of camp, and opaque where it should be seductively revealing. No subtext adds layers of interest to the proceedings and no chemistry helps enliven the actors’ awkward exchanges.
David Greenspan, as Jack, swans about the stage striking increasingly odd poses, until by the play’s end, he’s hanging over from the waist in some sort of strange indication of exhausted resignation. Greenspan seems to be playing a drag queen in pants, in a broad presentational style that might have worked in a David Belasco production, but just seems ridiculous in this one. He connects with none of his female acting partners, forcing them to flail about, trying to divert his attention from his own solipsistic line readings and overwrought expressions. Jack is supposed to serve as the voice of the Village, the omniscient, world-weary, self-hating Dante for the gay girls. In Greenspan’s interpretation, he can’t see past his own narcissism, delivering a self-centered, closed off, rather irritating performance.
This production, playing at 37 Arts on 37th between 9th and 10th Avenues, is a commercial Off Broadway run, an extension of the one that began downtown in 2007. The original production, at the 4th Street Theatre, garnered rave reviews last year, especially for Greenspan. Perhaps his performance has just tuckered out and become a parody of itself in the intervening months.
The performance I attended at 37 Arts had an understudy playing Laura, with Autumn Dornfeld as Beth, and Carolyn Baeumler playing Marcie and a few other supporting characters. They all tried valiantly to play off of Greenspan’s uninspired lead. But the script gives them little meat on which to chew, whether they aim for satire or for realism. Even as camp caricatures, the characters offer little to go on. They’re familiar without being interesting; they add nothing new to the taxonomy of lesbian stereotypes, and their prattling and whining doesn’t reveal much about the historical experience of women who once lived like them. The actors try hard to mine the play’s attempts at comedy and its efforts at anguish, but the dialogue forces them into one-note performances.
The script’s most egregious misconception, however, is delivered by Jenn Colella’s Beebo. (Colella replaced Anna Foss Wilson, who starred in the original downtown production.) The eponymous heroine is given very little to do. Instead of centering the plot within Beebo’s fatal charm, she appears like a non-sequitur at odd moments in the story, and does little but bed the girls, threaten them when they get too confident, and leave them for the next one. But her machinations appear subservient in this adaptation to Jack’s more lethal allure.
This Beebo is a cartoon figure in her own chronicles. Colella affects an unconvincing butch swagger, posing in a listless attempt at a lesbian gestus. Beebo is archetypal in the lexicon of lesbian pulp fiction; in this production, her charisma is a joke that never delivers its punch-line. Physically compact, Colella is barely masculine and unconvincing as an irresistible Casanova. She doesn’t generate any heat with her female co-stars, and she disappears in the face of Greenspan’s preening.
The L Word‘s Shane is Beebo’s contemporary heir, the serial monogamist (or the resolute non-monogamist) who won’t grow up to embrace socially acceptable, coupled lesbian norms. Just as The L Word moralizes against Shane and her promiscuity even while it adores her and gives her all those sexy love scenes, the Bannon novels placed Beebo in an equivocal position as their loathed yet loved Lothario. Without a powerful Beebo to hold up her end of the mythic tales, these stories of doomed lust make no sense. The other characters revolve aimlessly in a universe that lacks someone magnetic to hold them in her orbit.
Beebo should have been played by Peggy Shaw, the virtuosic performing veteran of Split Britches and the WOW Café, who can galvanize an audience and her stage partners just by making an entrance. Shaw’s female masculinity would make the proceedings crackle, give the Chronicles historical heft, and provide the authentic charge of someone whose own experiences approximate those that Bannon’s novels represent. Audiences understand why characters go crazy for Peggy Shaw, because spectators, too, feel the pull of her charisma.
With someone like Shaw anchoring Beebo, the rest of the characters should have been played by the Five Lesbian Brothers, who could have delivered with high style on the campy promise of the original novels. The Brothers have performed these stories before, in plays like Brave Smiles and The Secretaries. They’re adept at the kind of affectionate, smart, knowing parody that bringing Bannon’s novels to the stage requires.
As it is, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles is strangely meaningless, an emotionally empty, sexually, politically, and aesthetically bereft production that might have satisfied an audience decades ago, when lesbians didn’t know any better. But in the 21st century, we’re too discerning to take much pleasure in a one-dimensional, uneasy adaptation of archaic genre fiction.
With its impressive pedigree (Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner are among the producers, too), The Beebo Brinker Chronicles should have delivered much more. I was hoping to see my nostalgia for the stories affirmed in a production that would honor the history of Bannon’s work even as it, of necessity, handled it parodically. Too bad. Maybe next time.
The Feminist Spectator