Plays about lives of quiet desperation are difficult to pull off because you run the risk of boring the audience. Liza Birkenmeier’s “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” has all the elements of a fascinating drama but as presented by Ars Nova at Greenwich House it is all about subtext and undercurrents which may go right over the heads of many audience members. Little happens but there is much tedious talk which is a cover-up for what goes unsaid.
It is Friday, June 17, 1983, as Astronaut Sally Ride prepares to be the first American woman in space on the following morning. On a South St. Louis rooftop, two long-time thirty-somethings, friends and co-workers at a restaurant, meet for their the weekly meeting of the Two Serious Ladies Book Club, named after the 1943 novel by Jane Bowles, drink beers, and listen to the news about the space launch. Harriet, the more subdued of the two, lives in this Ivan Brock House, former home of the fictional St. Louis poet where she helps Norma, the landlady, organize the library. The more lively one, Matilda, has a husband and a child, but does not seem to be anxious to get home, while Harriet appears to have recently broken up with Luke, her on-again, off-again boyfriend.
For the two women who have known each other since high school and have master degrees in poetry, their expectations have not panned out. Harriet is particularly restive as she listens to the news as her mother is dying in Florida, a car ride from the beach house where the astronauts spend their last night on earth before their ascent into space. However, there are other hints that all is not right. Matilda sings love songs and she and Harriet embrace warmly a few times. One gets the feeling that the two women were intimate at college back in the seventies but did not have the courage to pursue their lives together. Another clue may be the novel The Two Serious Ladies which is about two conventional women bored with their lives who decide to pursue their sexuality, one becoming a lesbian and the other, very promiscuous.
Things heat up a bit when Meg, a nurse at the hospital, shows up as Matilda has invited her to join them without telling Harriet. However, Meg is unaware that Harriet and Matilda gave up reading books for the club after the first one when they disagreed about the Bowles novel. Dressed in mannish clothing and sporting a butch haircut, the wry and well-adjusted Meg makes it clear that she is attracted to women and is a confirmed lesbian, but she is also dissatisfied with her life. She is here because she did not want to spend the evening at home alone. She flirts with both women but this does not spice up the evening. Harriet’s seemingly eccentric landlady Norma, an elderly spinster, put in a few appearances to complain about noise, open windows and flies in this hot St. Louis summer.
When Harriet suggests that Sally Ride is spending her last night on earth with her husband, Meg informs her that she knows for a fact that Ride is lesbian although she has not publically revealed her sexuality. This means that three of the women (Harriet, Matilda and the unseen Sally Ride) may all be closet lesbians unable to lead the lives they wish. A final fantasy scene suggests that things may be different in the future.
Birkenmeier creates very real characters and believable dialogue. However, she is weak on a dramatic event. Nothing much happens until almost the end of the play but by then it is a bit too late to change the temperature of the play as directed by Katie Brook. The cast certainly does their best with the roles they have been given. Kristen Sieh is pensive, but agitated as Harriet who is ripe for a change. As the blonde and beautiful Matilda, Erin Markey is an extrovert who is a little more settled with the compromises she has made. As Meg, stand-up comic Marga Gomez fits right into this milieu of dissatisfied women but seems much more together than the others. Susan Blommaert is rarely seen as Norma but makes her a very idiosyncratic character who never finishes a sentence in brief appearances.
The rooftop setting by Kimie Nishikawa with its open window at one end and skylight at the other is quite evocative though the empty skyscape above it seems a mistake. However, as evening falls Oona Curley’s lighting creates a strong mood as sundown and twilight descend into darkness. The costumes by Melissa Ng define the characters instantly as soon as we met them. Interestingly enough, the program notes explain that Sally Ride’s sexuality was not publically revealed until her obituary in 2012, 29 years after her famous trip into space. Fame apparently did not make being true to yourself any more simple.
Dr. Ride’s American Beach House (through November 23, 2019)
Ars Nova at Greenwich House, 27 Barrow Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.arsnovanyc.com
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission