And now for something completely different: The Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre, the Galleria Mall-based playhouse that next season will be presenting youth productions of musicals like “The Nutcracker,” “Through the Looking Glass” and “Shrek,” is welcoming a guest production that’s far from kid’s stuff through the month of September. This play is bawdy and salacious, full of suggestive language, sexual situations, even a little nudity – all for a cause that is both winningly witty and emotionally sensitive.
It’s called “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles,” produced by actor and director Kim Ehly’s Kutumba Theatre Project, and it’s a cult theater adaptation of a series of lesbian pulp fiction novels released in the ‘50s and ‘60s by Anne Bannon. First performed in 2007, the play is set during the time Bannon wrote the books, when homosexuality was still, believe it not, a categorized disorder in psychology’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – a “disease” whose representatives were trapped in the closets of Greenwich Village dives and the sort of lurid paperbacks penned by Bannon and others.
It is this environment in which Laura (Blaze Powers) arrives. She’s the quintessential theater archetype of a young American girl trying to make it in the big city, except that she’s coming to terms with the fact that she’s a lesbian, having enjoyed a short-lived but unforgettable affair with a sorority sister, Beth (Sandi M. Stock). Beth rejected her for a straight life with husband Charlie (Rayner Garranchan), while Laura carries her memory to every relationship she cultivates in New York – from Marci, the ditzy, hetero roommate she falls in love with (Christina Groom), to Beebo Brinker (Niki Fridh), the butch lesbian and Greenwich gadfly whose bed she escapes to. All the while, she grows emotionally closest with Jack (Matt Stabile), a gay lothario who is gradually finding himself too old to club-hop.
As the characters love, fight, drink and reminisce across Tyler K. Smith’s spartan, utilitarian set design, Ehly directs the action with breezy pacing and cinematic ambience. Aided by an irresistible mix of ‘50s pop and jazz tunes, she transitions between Laura’s self-actualizing journey and Beth’s misguided attempt at suburban domesticity before bringing the two together in an explosive climax.
Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman’s source material, which includes passages lifted directly from Bannon’s books, can be clunky, dated, nostalgically endearing and sometimes downright brilliant: “We can’t think straight because we always think gay,” delivered by Matt to Laura at a time of mutual melancholy, is one of the best lines in a play I’ve heard all year.
But Ehly and her cast are their best when they make the pulpy, half-century-old diction sound positively modern. As Beebo, Fridh is marvelous, a case study of invisible naturalism. Her Beebo is a creature of the forbidden night, one who only feels comfortable with a cigarette in one hand and a tumbler in the other, and Fridh has mastered her character’s lascivious glances and fearless swagger. Her acting chops are matched by Stabile – Fridh’s real-life husband, incidentally. Jack begins the play as a suave wag who sounds like he drifted in from a Fitzgerald novel, but Stabile eventually breaks down the caricature to reveal a surprising vulnerability and an infectious pathos.
Stock and Garranchan don’t far as well. The playwrights’ dialogue sounds especially arch when these two actors speak it, and their lack of chemistry together is a little too palpable – even when their characters’ relationship is supposed to be on the fritz. Perhaps they’ll improve as the run continues, but when watching them perform on opening weekend, I was most reminded of the play’s origins in dime-store melodrama.
But back to the good: Christina Groom is amusing and effectively gonzo in three parts, playing a lecherous pulp novelist and a plastered partygoer in addition to Marci; in each one, she leaves an indelible impression. And Powers is a compelling Laura, portraying her character’s coming of age like a naïve wallflower blooming into a fully realized bouquet.
It’s worth noting that the entire cast, or just about the entire cast, is straight, and it’s a testament to Ehly’s direction that the many intimate scenes of same-sex kissing and bedroom romps never feel uncomfortable – they are full of life, love, passion, and most of all liberation from a status quo that would just as soon damn them to the shadows.
“The Beebo Brinker Chronicles” runs through Sept. 29 at the Galleria Studio Theatre (AKA Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre), 2542B E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $25. Call 954/646-1000 or visit facebook.com/kutumbatheatreproject.