The Return of Beebo Brinker

Beebo Brinker, the sulky, sexy, tortured and maddening butch heroine of Ann Bannon's 1950s lesbian pulp novels, lives in Greenwich Village. New York's oldest elevator operator, Beebo keeps a low profile when the cops raid the bars, but every femme in the Village knows her, or wants to. Bannon called her a cross between movie star Ingrid Bergman and athlete Johnny Weissmuller. For Bannon's readers, Beebo served as a tour guide to the strange, wonderful New York lesbian subculture and a fantasy lover. At the same time, Beebo's dark, violent, man-emulating and self-hating side revealed the dark side of Bannon's books: their persistent undercurrent of internalized homophobia. The Village is a great place to live, they suggest, but a girl would have to be a martyr to live there -- or else very, very brave. Beebo and her world are resurrected with eerie accuracy in Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman's The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, a stage adaptation of several of Bannon's books. Part pulp romp, part exploration of cultural history, the play concentrates on a love triangle between Beebo and two very femme women, estranged sorority sisters and lovers Laura Landon (what a romance-novel name!) and Beth Ayres, nee Cummings.

Laura comes to Greenwich Village to forget about Beth, who dumped her to marry a man. While Beebo falls for Laura, Beth resolves to leave her husband and children and travel cross-country to New York to find Laura and pick up where they left off.

Meanwhile, Laura's friend Jack, a forty-something gay man sick of deluding himself that rent boys love him, relies increasingly on Laura for platonic companionship. Soon, he is asking her to share his loneliness.

Yes, the characters are walking stereotypes. Jack is a particularly egregious example. However, the production garners laughter and exudes pain because Leigh Silverman's direction renders the entire world similarly melodramatic and unreal. The mise-en-scenes look ripped from the covers of Bannon's books. Laura (Marin Ireland) looks down, arching her back like a wilted sunflower, as straight roommate Marcie (Carolyn Bauemler) lounges on a bed, exposing one garish pink Doreen bra strap and turning her body downstage as if aware of an audience. Beebo (Anna Foss Wilson) leans against a wall in the bar surveying the scene with an intense gaze, fitting easily into the roles of both spectacle and voyeur.

Rachel Hauck's versatile minimalist set is dominated by a platform that functions as several beds and floors. This leaves it to Theresa Squire's costumes to establish the period. They do, with clarity, finesse, and fun, but without going overboard into parody or kitsch.

Beebo is suited up in men's style trousers and shirts and severely brushed-back, apparently Brylcreem'd hair. A few striking touches: tall boots and a red velvet vest, emphasise her beauty and iconoclasm, but also her tragic drive to control her world and its other women.

The other girls wear such 1950s staples as crinoline-stuffed skirts, belted sweaters, and pointy, bulky bras. Marcie in particular seems to have got her fashion sense from Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe.

The actors make up in technically precise character-acting for the characters' absence of depth. Each has a clearly defined walk, stance, and voice. There are two standouts, however. One is Bauemler in the sharply contrasting roles of Marcie, scary vamp Lili, and worldly, cynical romance novelist Nina Spicer, an homage to Bannon herself. The other is Wilson. Beebo spends much of the play merely watching the other characters, surveying her domain, but Wilson builds into even this a rage at her world that bursts through the cool exterior at just the right moments. Paradoxically, it is the fantastic Beebo who, of the play's principal characters, ultimately appears the most complex and self-contradictory, which is to say, the most genuinely human.

As a play with lesbian characters at front-and-centre, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles is a rarity in New York theatre, even off-off-Broadway. It is a great piece of cultural archaeology and often riotously funny. At the same time, it is a play about people caught between difficult realities and often more difficult fantasies. They try to see through a maze of prejudice and self-denial to find out who they really are, and find the courage to live by the truths they discover.

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