One of the most popular plays of American gay theater’s first wave makes a surprisingly smooth transition to modern Venezuela in Fina Torres’ “Liz in September.” There’s an element of glam soap opera to this version of Jane Chambers’ “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove,” and despite the director-scenarist’s tweaks, some elements that worked on stage feel more contrived on screen. But this handsome romantic drama will be a crowdpleaser primarily among lesbian audiences in various formats.
Chambers’ signature 1980 work was among the best-crafted and most widely produced scripts to emerge as companies specifically devoted to gay themes and audiences began to flourish in the U.S. Torres has shuffled some elements around a bit, most notably changing the background circumstances of the lone heterosexual “ingenue,” but remains faithful to a general narrative outline.
Liz (Patricia Velasquez) is celebrating her 37th birthday in the familiar comfort of a seaside hotel run by Margot (Elba Escobar). A former model, Liz long ago realized “beauty is power,” and applied that somewhat ruthless, conquering philosophy to her professional and personal relationships, presumably leaving a trail of broken hearts behind her.
Those gathered for the weekend fete are forgiving types. In addition to Margot, there’s Liz’s erstwhile lover Dolores (Mimi Lazo), a closeted celebrity doctor who still cares deeply about her ex but has brought along her callow, much younger new girlfriend, Coqui (Danay Garcia). A more stable couple are the resort’s cook Any (Arlette Torres) and fun-loving, athletic Alex (Maria Luisa Flores). None is aware yet that this may well be the last such celebration for Liz, as the cancer she’s already fought back once with treatment is now back in full force.
Stumbling into this balmy Sapphic paradise is Eva (Eloisa Maturen), who was headed elsewhere when a bumpy rural road disabled her car. She’s got her own preoccupations — a recently deceased child, a husband who’s possibly cheating — so for a while she’s oblivious to being the sole heterosexual at the establishment she’s been reluctantly admitted to for lack of other available local accommodations. In the spirit of competitions past, Alex bets Liz she can’t “seduce the straight girl” before the weekend’s up. Various ruses are deployed to throw the two women together (and keep Eva from leaving). But a genuine mutual attraction develops nonetheless, one that might rep Liz’s last chance at real love.
The speed of Eva’s transition from wide-eyed interloper to fully committed lover/carer for a terminally ill same-sex spouse was easier to swallow onstage than in this more naturalistic medium. However, Torres (“Celestial Clockwork,” “Woman on Top”) downplays the implausibilities as much as possible, coating everything in a lush aesthetic that pleases even when it verges on empty travel-brochure prettiness. The attractive cast, variably billowing/skimpy attire, alluring scenery and frequent use of slow-motion all conjure a sensual vacation world of pastel hues and tanned skin. If sometimes that glossy lyricism feels forced, it also provides a certain distance that lets Torres pull off the story’s more rigged, wish-fulfillment aspects.
Herself a onetime model turned international thesp (including stints on “The L Word” and “Arrested Development”), Velasquez makes a strong impression in a change-of-pace role. Other cast members are fine in more limited roles, though the ballet-trained Maturen conveys more poise than depth in a key one, her big-screen acting debut. Tech and design elements are all handsomely tuned, down to the room decor of a pocket resort most viewers would gladly check into.