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Theatre in Review: Dr. Ride's American Beach House (Ars Nova/Greenwich House)

Erin Markey. Photo: Ben Arons Photography.

Dr. Ride's American Beach House unfolds across a hot summer night, which may account in part for the languid atmosphere that overtakes the stage. A conversation piece for four women who take to a St. Louis rooftop to while away a certain July evening in 1983, its air of laziness extends to the playwright, Liza Birkenmeier, who -- despite her knack for distinctive dialogue and a certain offhand, off-the-wall wit -- can't be bothered to come up with anything like drama -- or, for that matter, characters with coherent personal histories.

Harriet and Matilda are lifelong best friends, having survived Catholic school and a graduate writing program together. Now working as waitresses and seemingly unable to produce a publishable sentence between them, they are stuck in life and stuck on each other, participants in a mutual admiration society that excludes the rest of the world. (At times, I was reminded of Frances Ha, the rather better Noam Baumbach-Greta Gerwig film about college friends who must learn to surrender their in-jokes and impenetrable all-purpose snark if they are ever to have adult relationships.) Any mention of Harriet's boyfriend produces only a pained expression. Matilda is married but apparently has little interest in her husband; as the play begins, her little daughter is at home, suffering "a monster poop virus." Matilda, demonstrating her idea of maternal concern, adds, "She's like a leaky Hot Pocket."

The evening's occasion is the Two Serious Ladies Book Club, so named because Harriet and Matilda are the only members. Not that literature is involved: "I'm still annoyed from when you made me read Silkworm, I mean Nightworm, I mean Nightwood," Harriet tells Matilda, irritated. Indeed, their only real interest is in hanging out, drinking beer, amusing each other, and engaging in embraces that might leave one thinking that maybe they don't need men at all. Certainly, that's the impression of Meg, the butch lesbian who drops by at Matilda's invitation, for reasons that are never articulated. All this happens on the eve of Sally Ride's historic, first-woman-in-space trip on the Space Shuttle Challenger. Birkenmeier uses Ride -- who led a purposeful, eventful life -- for heavy-handed ironic contrast with those model slackers, Harriet and Matilda. That Ride was also a closeted lesbian is not lost on the playwright, either.

It's a situation rife with dramatic possibilities, but Harriet and Matilda are defined largely by their fecklessness. Matilda, defending their total lack of productivity, says, "Our problem was that we weren't interested enough in cocaine in graduate school. If we had been more eccentric or or or high, people would be asking us about our inspiration by now." They play a game of "Our problem is," blaming their lives on the state of Missouri, the nuns who taught them, and "that we had unrealistic expectations because we never got anyone else's opinions." It is Harriet who delivers the coup de grĂ¢ce: "Our problem is that we're bad at writing." The only encounter that we hear about outside their hermetically sealed world is Harriet's wild night with a hairy, motorcycle-riding marble collector -- I mean the little round glass toys, not slabs from Carrara, Italy -- about which she says, "I have never in my life felt excited to have sex before. Never...I have never anticipated sex in my entire life in a way that was remotely positive. And I feel a whole new power, like a person who can barbecue..."

The dialogue is filled with insider references to the characters' personal lives, some of which are missed because Kristen Sieh and Erin Markey (as Harriet and Matilda) give performances so naturalistic that they are sometimes hard to hear. In any case, Birkenmeier struggles to create comprehensible histories for her characters. We are told that Harriet's mother is dying, but a late-arriving phone call from the hospice where she is a patient opens up an entirely new -- and thoroughly confusing -- series of revelations. Among other things, it appears that Harriet knows virtually nothing about her many half-siblings; prior to a recent visit, exactly where and when mother and daughter last saw each other is left to the imagination.

I'm guessing that Birkenmeier is more interested in evoking a specific sensibility than in working up a compelling conflict; she appears to have fallen in love with her characters' voices. Under Katie Brook's direction -- which is alert to even the tiniest shift in the characters' moods -- Sieh and Markey bring a surprising amount of presence to these papery creatures, even given certain technical difficulties, such as audibility. Markey's Matilda, with her all-knowing attitude and rock-hard carapace of skepticism, can be very funny, especially when adopting an air of mock disapproval upon discovering a cigarette in Harriet's possession, or when trashing another student's poem by setting it to the melody of "Memory." Sieh can't really turn the navel-gazing Harriet into a compelling character, but she makes Harriet's deep attachment to Matilda thoroughly convincing. Marga Gomez, best-known for her self-authored solo pieces, makes Meg -- who sees a lot more than she admits -- into the most likable character onstage. Susan Blommaert comes in and out as Harriet's fretful, neurotic landlady, using an oddly halting delivery to complain about flies and dripping air-conditioner units.

In a production that coasts on mood, the design is a big help. Kimie Nishikawa's rooftop setting and Oona Curley's lighting -- featuring a long, detailed sunset-into-moonlight sequence -- go a long way toward striking the right tone. This goes double for Ben Williams' sound design, which blends pop tunes, radio news reports, birdsong, and passing traffic noises to good effect; he also creates Matilda's prank art project, an audio tape featuring the sound of her chewing carrots. Melissa Ng's costumes draw strong contrasts between the characters.

It probably doesn't aid the cause of understanding to mention the eleventh-hour introduction of Sally Ride and her life partner, Molly Tyson, also played by Sieh and Markey. It's tempting to see Dr. Ride's American Beach House as a drama of suppressed desires; more than once, I thought, why don't they just do it and get it over with? Then again, something tells me that having sex with each other wouldn't solve anything. Harriet and Matilda have bigger problems than that, no matter how ill-defined they are. -- David Barbour

(5 November 2019)

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