Dr. Ride's American Beach House
Time Out says
Theater review by Adam Feldman
Kimie Nishikawa’s rooftop set of Dr. Ride’s American Beach House is so steeply slanted to one side that for the first few minutes of Liza Birkenmeier’s compelling new play, I actually felt a little off-balance. So, perhaps, do Harriet (Kristen Sieh) and Matilda (Erin Markey), who have met there on the eve of astronaut Sally Ride’s historic space trip in 1983. Enmeshed since high school, they have set aside their dreams of writing poetry, and now work as waitresses in St. Louis. Although they float in a tank of lesbian signifiers—they call their meeting the Two Serious Ladies Book Club, after a novel by Jane Bowles—and are unusually physically close, both of these women have male partners. The benefits of their intimate friendship are unspoken; they may flirt with queer self-knowledge, sometimes brazenly, but it’s always with an escape hatch of denial, firmly monitored by the dominant Matilda.
Intensely blasé, Markey brings a burning charisma to the role of the attention-hungry Matilda; Sieh’s Harriet, sensitive and interior, is her equal and opposite, inured to being in Matilda’s shade but just beginning to find her own shine. The two have been dancing the same steps for years, but this is not to be a night like the others, thanks in part to the disruptive presence of Meg (an amiably tough Marga Gomez), a bulldyke medical worker with cropped hair and combat boots. (A fourth character—Harriet’s landlord, a bottled-up spinster played with halting idiosyncrasy by Susan Blommaert—may represent, in the cosmology of the play, a cautionary tale of repression. “I care about safety and I care about money,” she says.) The route of Birkenmeier’s plot is tightly mapped in retrospect, but full of worthy little detours into character; directed by Katie Brook, Dr. Ride takes its sweet time to rev up, but it goes the distance when the engine kicks in. It’s a specific and evocative depiction of identity and power at a crossroads—of who can reach for the sky, and of who gets left behind.
Ars Nova (Off Broadway). By Liza Birkenmeier. Directed by Katie Brook. With Kristen Sieh, Erin Markey. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.