Theater: Butch and Proud

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I had a friend in college who always read drugstore romance novels, the kind with heaving bosoms and cursive lettering on the cover. We would tease her and then snatch the books to read the sex scenes aloud dramatically. I was reminded of these readings upon seeing Beebo Brinker Chronicles at 37 Arts, a remounting of the play based on the groundbreaking 1950s lesbian pulp fiction of Ann Bannon (a pseudonym). One of the characters in Beebo Brinker reads a sex scene aloud, quite dramatically, as my friends and I would—but to very different effect.

Beth (Autumn Dornfeld), an unhappy housewife, slams the door on her noisy children and opens a novel by Nina Spicer, the fictional lesbian pulp writer of the play. As she reads the words aloud, she clutches her ankle and rubs her hand up and down. At the same time, Beth’s college roommate and first love Laura (Marin Ireland) throws another woman onto a bed hundreds of miles away in Greenwich Village.

Beth read dramatically and excitedly, but it wasn’t funny. She was reading like it would save her life. Beth’s novel may have been seen as “throwaway literature,” as Bannon said in a talk after Sunday’s show, but as the play shows, Bannon’s novels were very important and their characters very real.

Beth and Laura had a romance while in college, but Beth decided she wanted to get married. She had two kids but soon realized she was unhappy—that, in fact, she hated living with a man. Meanwhile, Laura went to Greenwich Village, where she met the witty, gentle and sad-at-heart Jack (David Greenspan), who introduced her to the gay scene and to the fierce-but-needy Beebo Brinker (Jenn Colella). Brinker first talks to Laura in a bar restroom with a bottle of beer between her legs. A few nights later, Laura goes home with her.

Colella plays Beebo masterfully, using her body expansively, stretching her hands wide or striding across the stage. When she’s onstage, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. Ireland, as Laura, tends toward histrionics at the beginning, which I found trying. Yet by the end of the play, she reveals how her character has changed, imbuing Laura with icy self-possession. 

Although the characters and their emotions are very real, the play has some of the fun, campy feel of pulp fiction. Theresa Squire’s costumes have a 1950s look and the garish colors of a pulp fiction cover.

Pulp fiction not only inspires the play’s visual aspects, but it’s also an important part of the plot. After tearing through Spicer’s novels, Beth begins writing letters to her. Spicer eventually appears in person, played as a husky-voiced vamp by Carolyn Baeumler. It is clear that her novels provided not just pleasure but also validation for Beth.

Between 1957 and 1962, Ann Bannon wrote five novels about the characters in the play while she was a housewife in Pennsylvania. She was inspired to write her first novel after reading a book by another lesbian pulp fiction pioneer, Mary Jane Meeker. “Everybody was supposed to be wearing ruffled aprons and scrubbing the floor with a batch of cookies in the oven,” she said. “And I didn’t want to be doing that.”

Bannon, who was tall and trim with short blonde hair, was coy about her personal life, although she said much of what she wrote was based on her own experience. She and her former husband are “still friends” she said. And, like Beth writing to Spicer in the play, Bannon wrote to Meeker and eventually met her in New York. “Sparks flew, it was very fun—I’m writing a memoir so you can all read about it,” Bannon said.

At the end of Bannon’s talk, a short woman with red hair and a loud, husky voice stood up in the back of the audience. “Anne, I relived my entire life on the stage,” she said. “It was me.”

Through April 27, 37 Arts, 450 W. 37th St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves), 212-307-4100; $46.25-$56.25.

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