Just the Facts, Ma'am

The Theater for the New City’s website and press claims, troublingly (to me, at least), that Barbara Kahn’s “The Spring and Fall of Eve Adams recounts the true story” of its subject. Yet, as far as I can tell, this much is true: Eve Adams (real name Eva Kotchever) “was a Jewish lesbian from Poland, who was proprietor of ‘Eve’s Hangout’ at 129 Macdougal Street in 1926, a tearoom where local poets, musicians and actors congregated to meet and share their work in salon evenings” (from the web site). We also know that Eve’s Hangout closed after Eve was arrested in a crackdown on gay and lesbian establishments and society. Prior to this, Eve and her salon had been vilified by the bigoted editor of a local paper called The Greenwich Village Quill (called The Parchment in the play). After her arrest, Eve moved to Paris where she lived, by some accounts, hand-to-mouth. She always longed to return to the States. Ms. Kahn’s account takes place in and around Eve’s Hangout and paints Eve in broad, sanitized strokes, so that she comes off as a kindly den mother rather than the avant garde provocateur described by some historians. Carefully offered as a saintly, nurturing matron, this likely well-scrubbed Eve (Steph Van Vlack) more closely resembles Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life than a radical lesbian intellectual in 1920s bohemian Greenwich Village.

Eve generously employs a young, searching, poor girl, and then generously welcomes another young, searching, poor girl (both are fictional characters); she offers wholesome dating advice (to fictional characters); she winkingly tolerates a ubiquitous, sharp and universally disliked patron (who is fictional); she heartily encourages the writing careers (of fictional characters), and forgives the lies and slights (of...well, you know) with tea and cheerful hugs. Has a kinder, gentler soul ever existed? Sadly, I doubt that Kahn is giving us anything close to the real Eve. At best, it’s a wild guess.

The production’s program states, more mildly, that the play is “inspired by a true story.” Yet, Ms. Kahn takes sometimes-shocking inspiration with the extant facts of Eve’s life. There’s a central plot twist, but it doesn’t ring true at all, not only because it’s fictionalized but also because it’s implausible, even in the context of the play’s own plot. Another problem is that the play is simply too long. You know you have length issues when you start labeling your scenes “Five-b.” We sometimes have to sit through Eve’s interminable and, frankly, not very good, love stories.

So, to get this straight: The Spring and Fall of Eve Adams is a mostly imagined account of the life of an historical person about whom we know some surprisingly few facts. Since she invents so many fictional characters (and two real characters--in name only--who may or may not have personally known Eve), Ms. Kahn might have been better off had she simply invented, rather than appropriated, a protagonist. Kahn’s Eve is not consistent with what is known of her. Kahn’s Eve would have been much too polite to hang a sign outside her salon (a fact the play uses) stating, “Men are admitted, but not welcome.” Kahn’s Eve is too timid and, frankly, dull, for such action--radical at the time.

There are two standout performances here: Anna Podolak as Amalia “Mika” Frank, a young woman whose mother disinherits her for her lesbianism, and Micha Lazare as Alice Hathaway, a longing young woman from Red Bank, New Jersey, in search of her freedom and identity. Mika and Alice start a tentative, innocent relationship. Ms. Podolak’s specialty is body language, and she can welcome or dismiss someone with a simple twist of her mouth. Ms. Lazare, for her part, brings wonder and joy to her character, free for the first time on the indifferent but nonjudgmental streets of New York City.

Deanna R. Frieman’s vintage costuming is chic and smart, incorporating both the 1920s college look and men’s period styles. And Mark Marcante’s set design really does replicate the look of a café or salon, with warm brick walls, period furniture, and even what looks like a kitchen at the back of the stage.

Well-intentioned as it is, The Spring and Fall of Eve Adams is a disappointing and fatally flawed play. Ms. Kahn is clearly sympathetic to her characters and, at its core, this play is about terrible injustice suffered by gays and lesbians in a particular place and period in our nation’s history. In a document entitled “Historical Background of the Play,” Ms. Kahn states, “I enjoy discovering people and events that have been omitted and distorted in history and popular culture.” Unfortunately, Ms. Kahn’s account may serve ultimately to further distort the life of a figure about whom we already know so little.

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