“Beebo Brinker” Comes to Off Broadway

This month the stage adaptation of Ann Bannon’s iconic and beloved lesbian pulp series, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, which debuted last fall at the Fourth Street Theater in New York, moves to Off Broadway for a 10-week run, with previews beginning Feb. 19. Given the rarity of lesbian-themed theater, the play’s success so far has been particularly sweet.

Out playwrights Linda Chapman and Kate Moira Ryan and out director Leigh Silverman have been on a mission, since 2001, to adapt classic lesbian fiction for the stage. They picked Bannon’s pulp novels for their debut. “There’s something in Ann’s writing; she captures something very, very, very, truthful about lesbian relationships — and about all kinds of emotional relationships, really. Because she touches on everything,” said Chapman.

Left to right: Linda Chapman, Leigh Silverman and Kate Moira Ryan

The Beebo Brinker Chronicles takes characters and stories from three Bannon novels set in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s. The play follows Laura (Marin Ireland) and Beth (Autumn Dornfeld), former sorority sisters and ex-lovers, as they endure the repercussions of Beth’s conformist decision to dump Laura in order to marry a man, and Laura’s courageous decision to forgo marriage and move to New York City.

Housewife Beth suffers in her unsatisfying marriage, while Laura faces challenges living as a lesbian in the 1950s — including a passionately violent relationship with sexy butch Beebo Brinker (Jenn Colella), and a platonic marriage to a gay man, Jack (David Greenspan).

Friends for nearly 20 years, Chapman and Ryan are the kind of collaborators who finish each other’s sentences. Both have written acclaimed lesbian theater, most notably Ryan’s 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother (co-authored with lesbian comedian Judy Gold, now touring the United States) and Chapman’s Gertrude and Alice: A Likeness to Loving (co-authored with her partner, Lola Pashalinski, based on the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas).

Chapman said she and Ryan began their research by rereading Bannon’s five novels, “breaking all three books down like you would a script, into beats.” Like a puzzle with a variety of configurations, they moved the characters and story lines around, rearranging the novels to find the right way to tell the story onstage.

The process took three years, from obtaining the rights to the novels in 2002 to producing a near-final version of the script in 2005.

In its final form, Beebo is an emotionally intense, 90-minute one-act play. It cleverly and nonlinearly overlaps the stories from the novels, interweaving Laura’s arrival in New York City (from the novel I Am a Woman) with Beth’s struggle 10 years later over whether to remain in her marriage or seek out Laura in New York (from the novel Journey to a Woman).

According to Silverman, who has directed two of the highest-profile lesbian-themed theater pieces in New York (Lisa Kron’s Well on Broadway and the Five Lesbian Brothers’ Oedipus at Palm Springs), the current one-act form is a drastic change from the initial draft. That version was three acts long and covered many more characters and story lines.

“It felt to me sort of like an endless melodrama,” Silverman said. “It was like, we need more, or we need a lot less. And we opted for a lot less.”