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Off-Broadway Review: Ars Nova’s “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” at Greenwich House (Through Saturday November 23, 2019)

Off-Broadway Review: Ars Nova’s “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” at Greenwich House (Through Saturday November 23, 2019)
Written by Liza Birkenmeier
Directed by Katie Brook
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Commissioned by Ars Nova in 2016 and currently playing at New York City’s Greenwich House, “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” claims to be one thing but delivers something markedly different from its hype. Harriet (Kristen Sieh), Matilda (Erin Markey), Norma (Susan Blomaert), and Meg (Marga Gomez) are “a group of women with passionate opinions and no opportunities [sitting] on a sweltering St. Louis rooftop [in 1983] watching life pass them by. Their uncharted desires bump up against American norms of sex and power in this intimate snapshot of queer anti-heroines.” Given that there have been millennia of LGBTQ+ folk bumping up against their specific cultural/historical norms of sex and power, playwright Liza Birkenmeier has her work cut out for her.

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this reviewer settled into my seat with high expectations. The theatre needs new plays that focus on the uniqueness of the communities under the acronym’s umbrella. Unfortunately, this older, white, cisgender, queer reviewer (full disclosure is always commendable) found nothing new in Birkenmeier’s play, identified more than one straight stereotype that the LGBTQ+ communities have struggled to eschew for at least the span of the last several decades (much longer, of course), and found some of the content offensive to the queer community.

Harriet and Matilda, founders and sole members of the “Two Serious Ladies Book Club,” gather on the rooftop to share stories from past and present, compare notes about Matilda’s husband Arthur and their ailing daughter Leslie, and Matilda’s boyfriend Luke. Matilda seems underwhelmed about her dual roles as mother and spouse. Harriet, commenting on pregnancy and sex with her boyfriend Luke, opines, “Carbon refigured into fetal cells is disgusting, and sex with Luke is disgusting.” She confirms her feelings about men admonishing Matilda to “never talk about men on the roof.” Although these concepts might align with queer theory’s disdain for patriarchy, they do nothing here to address personal responsibility and ownership of decision making.

One such decision is Harriet’s unexpected tryst with the limping motorcyclist she meets at the hospice center (visiting her dying mother) and who invites her back to his house. Despite her “aversion to men,” she parses the experience as the opportunity to demonstrate her power and her ability “to control a room.” How this sex-infused event, detailed in an overwrought and overlong dialogue with Matilda, can be described as relevant to queer theory or identifying Harriet as a “queer anti-hero” is completely baffling and objectionable.

Counterpointing the plot driven by Harriet’s and Matilda’s conflicted relationship is the visit to the roof by Meg (Marga Gomez) and the story of Sally Ride on the night of her historic launch and the visit by her lover Molly Tyson. Matilda invites Meg to the “book club,” an act that devastates Harriet and serves to clarify her feelings for Harriet and expose her jealousy. Once again, the queer must arrive on the scene and “save” the closeted Harriet and rescue her from a life of self-degradation and despair.

Clearly, Matilda and Harriet have a deep affection for one another, a latent queer love that has been repressed and likely unexplored in any depth. What remains unclear is the provenance of the repression and the reasons for not exploring the rich levels of their relationship. There is a story of anguish wrought by repression, misguided choices, and systemic cultural homophobia and gender bias; however, “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” does not rise to an epic tale of “queer anti-heroes” forging a pathway to self-acceptance and claiming true power and control. Under Katie Brook’s direction, the cast does what it can to authenticate their character’s conflicts despite the weakness of Liza Birkenmeier’s script.

DR. RIDE’S AMERICAN BEACH HOUSE

The cast for “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House includes” Susan Blommaert, Marga Gomez, Erin Markey, and Kristen Sieh.

The creative team for “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” includes Kimie Nishikawa (Scenic Design), Melissa Ng (Costume Design), Oona Curley (Lighting Design), Ben Williams (Sound Design) and Alex H. Hajjar (Production Stage Manager).

Ars Nova’s “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” at Greenwich House (27 Barrow Street, Manhattan) through Saturday November 23, 2019 on the following performance schedule: Monday–Wednesday at 7:00 p.m.; Thursday and Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Tickets, starting at $20.00, are currently on sale at www.arsnovanyc.com and by calling 212-352-3101. Running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes without intermission.

Photo: Marga Gomez, Kristen Sieh, and Erin Markey in “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House.” Credit: Ben Arons Photography.
0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink | Posted by David Roberts on Tuesday, November 12, 2019