Presented as part of TOSOS’ 50th anniversary season, Chris Weikel’s Pride House dramatizes the events surrounding the Great Hurricane of September 20, 1938 which destroyed most of the houses on Fire Island’s Cherry Grove. According to the play, this led to the creation of a gay enclave at Cherry Grove as socialite and hostess Beatrice Farrar bought up the empty plots, built new cottages and sold them to her gay and artistic friends. She and her ex-husband Thomas, a Broadway set designer, lived in Pride House, the only house that survived the storm in that part of the shore. In fact, it still stands and can be rented today for summer visits.
While “Pride” has come to stand for Gay Liberation in contemporary times, Beatrice has named her house after Jane Austen’s novel as it is made clear when she names her new guesthouse “Prejudice” at the end of the play. The play’s cast of characters includes mostly real people under their own names: John Mosher, film critic for The New Yorker Magazine; Arthur Brill, decorator and furniture designer; Natalia Danesi Murray, a Broadway actress and later journalist and editor; and Edwin Marshall, an African American dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies. Unfortunately, neither the play nor the program makes it clear that these were all real people or that they were well known in their time. The play also does a certain amount of name dropping (Eva Le Gallienne, Gypsy Rose Lee, Janet Flanner) that may go over the heads of many of the younger theatergoers today.
While the milieu is interesting and the memorable characters bring back to life people forgotten to history, Igor Goldin’s direction is too leisurely for this two and a half hour play. He directs it as though it were a drawing room comedy, but while it is clever it is not witty enough to be played so slowly. Nor does the play tell us all we need to know about these people. Much of the play is bitchy innuendo delineating the secrets the characters know about each other. We watch as Thomas breaks up with Edwin; John and Brad, seemingly a minor actor with the physique of a Leyendecker model, get together; and Arthur and Stephen, who appears to be a costumer who has ties to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, continue their affair. Natalia mourns the fact that her partner Janet Flanner (the celebrated writer “Genêt”) is in Paris, while Beatrice plays host to them all, though some have summer rentals nearby.
The ostensible plot of the play concerns Beatrice’s fight with the conservative and narrow-minded Property Owners Association made up of family-oriented people concerned about the influx of these artistic and gay bohemians. They are represented in the play by the Gerards (based on the real life Gerrodettes) who wanted to keep Cherry Grove safe for people with children. It is left to Beatrice after the hurricane to get the better of them.
While the large cast is well chosen, they are not required to go as far as they ought with these colorful characters. As Beatrice, Jamie Heinlein is elegant and chic though she does not have enough sauciness for the things she has to say. In the underwritten role of her ex-husband Thomas, Patrick Porter mainly postures his way through the play as a randy New Yorker on his vacation. As Beatrice’s adversary in Cherry Grove, Gail Dennison as grand dame Irene Gerard always seems to be choosing her words too carefully and seems too slow on the uptake, while Desmond Dutcher as her husband, a bigoted entitled landowner, almost seems a caricature.
The bohemians are a colorful lot though we want to know more about them. As the flamboyant Arthur Brill, Tom Souhrada takes as his model Truman Capote – though we are told nothing about him. Aaron Kaplan’s John Mosher is fine as the discreetly homosexual film critic, socially awkward but open to suggestion. Jessica DiSalvo’s Natalia, the Italian-born actress about to begin her career in journalism, offers a strong dose of realism among the more artistic types. Although African American London Carlisle is not allowed to give any evidence that he is a famous dancer, he manages to say a good deal more than his dialogue about racism in the 1930’s. Jake Mendes makes all of Stephen’s remarks have a waspish sting. (More is needed to be known about this character without a last name.) While the handsome Alex Herrera’s Brad is described as rather dull he manages to hold his own in this company.
Among characters who are not family or life-long friends are ten-year-old French Prince Hugo and 13-year-old Princess Maxine (not their real names), who rumor has it were house guests of the Farrars during the hurricane of 1938. Both Calvin Knegten and Raquel Sciacca act far older than their ages as worldly sophisticates but still portray curious children. Dontonio DeMarco is very much underused as Poppy Frederick, de facto harbor master.
The production design varies from the memorable to the bland. Evan Frank’s set design creates the large living-dining room of Pride House that cleverly brings the beach outside into the room with a mural which goes all around the room. The impressive art collection on its wall includes three paintings by the playwright matching the sofa fabric and a set of scenic renderings by legendary set designer Jo Mielziner. Ben Philipp’s costumes are a mixed bag. While the day clothes of these people are quite monotone, strange for these bohemians, their party costumes are right on target. Morry Campbell’s sound design incorporates period songs of the 1930’s. The lighting by David Castaneda brings the sunlight in from the beach but does not differentiate day and evening scenes.
Pride House, a world premiere play by Chris Weikel, is an interesting attempt to shed light on a forgotten period of gay history on Fire Island While the cast of characters is quite adequate, the play could be sharpened up a bit with more epigrammatic lines. The play is also too long for the little that happens in Igor Goldin’s leisurely direction and should either be more quickly paced or shortened. However, the play is a fascinating view of a world that one assumes did not begin until after Stonewall but here we are proved wrong.
Pride House (through February 10, 2024)
TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence)
The Siggy @ The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.tososnyc.org
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission