It’s appropriate that in Rachel Hauck’s set for “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles,” the same platform serves as a bed and a hard wooden floor. Adapted from Ann Bannon’s popular pulp novels from the 1950s and 1960s, the play charts the love affairs of a group of lesbians in McCarthy-era Greenwich Village, where being gay often meant hiding in dark bars and hoping the police didn’t come. It’s no surprise, then, that the plot flits between tender romance and harsh scenes of violence and self-loathing. These women’s acts of passion are also the source of their pain.
Whittling three of Bannon’s six books to a brisk 90 minutes, playwrights Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman tell a period story with only a hint of contemporary commentary. When naive college grad Laura (Marin Ireland) arrives in New York, trying to forget her old flame Beth (Autumn Dornfeld) and start her new lesbian life, she speaks and acts like a polite ’50s gal. However, she also reads Camus’ “The Stranger,” an addition made by the playwrights to underscore the gay loneliness of the time.
Director Leigh Silverman makes occasional statements of her own, such as in a concluding image depicting two outcomes for gay relationships. One couple — which includes Laura’s “bachelor” friend Jack (David Greenspan) — mimics heterosexuality, while another is as gay as can be. Silverman places them on different levels, and lighting designer Nicole Pearce bathes them in separate light. We’re asked to consider two worlds and decide which is the better response to the culture of the day.
As potent as they are, however, these points are softly made, like things to be considered later. The primary focus is on soap opera-style tribulations, which the production plays sincerely. Denied a campy tone, we’re asked to lose ourselves in Laura’s love affair with Beebo (Anna Foss Wilson), the butchest of butches, and Beth’s desperate flight from her husband (Bill Dawes) as she tries to rekindle her old Sapphic flame.
There’s quite a bit of melodrama, but a couple of sterling perfs make it easy to stay engaged. Ireland, her face a vivid map of internal confusion, lets us see every impulse behind Laura’s actions. When she leans in to kiss her straight roommate Marcie (Carolyn Baeumler), her hands clench with panicky hope, and when she rebuffs Beth’s renewed advances, a small flick of her head defines the hardening of her heart.
Dornfeld’s work is equally sophisticated. Even when Beth tries to remain proper, her richly textured voice signals her hidden feeling, and when she finally finds Laura again, her collapse into longing is electric.
Wilson can never turn Beebo into more than stock gestures of masculinity, but that’s largely because her character is written as an archetype. She moves through Bannon’s books as a fantasy and a plot device, and she serves the same function here. In one scene, she might assault Laura after their relationship goes sour, and in the next, she’ll be a sensitive lover, depending on what other characters need to make them react.
Even more disorienting, Beebo’s actions are barely acknowledged. Not even Laura mentions getting hit, which makes it seem like important scenes have been skipped.
Additional confusion springs from Hauck’s set, which uses an upstage platform, a few doors and a ledge to create everything from bedrooms to barrooms. The few accoutrements become associated with certain spaces, so that the ledge, say, signifies a nightclub called the Cellar.
The first few locations are clear, but as new settings emerge, Silverman has nowhere to place them. One fight between Beebo and Laura essentially happens in space since every part of the stage has already been defined.
Ultimately, though, these problems don’t stop the production from being zippy, well-acted fun that delivers an interesting look at how gay life used to be.