Dr. Ride's American Beach House (2019) | a CurtainUp Review
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A CurtainUp Review
Dr. Ride's American Beach House

"The Two Serious Ladies Book Club was a fantasy of starting a cultural life in this town—"
"That died. But it has given us a reason—"
"It's given us a lot. For example, we say on Fridays to anyone who asks that we are going to the Two Serious Ladies Book Club, and it sounds more respectable—"
"No one—no one asks."
"Except our husbands."
"I don't have a husband."
"You have a... You have something."

Dr. Ride's American Beach House
(L–R) Kristen Sieh and Erin Markey (Photo: Ben Arons Photography)
Dr. Ride's American Beach House is only "about" Sally Ride in the way that Waiting for Godot is about Godot. We barely see the titular character, but she exerts a force over the characters in the play. Her influence is constantly remarked upon yet is hardly the major concern for the characters or playwright Liza Birkenmeier..

Instead, as Dr. Ride sits a thousand miles away preparing for the imminent launch of STS-7, Birkenmeier. takes us to a St. Louis rooftop for a meeting of the Two Serious Ladies Book Club. Those Two Serious Ladies are Harriet (Kristen Sieh) and Matilda (Erin Markey), who have been close since school. The intimacy between them is unmistakable, yet the exact nature of their relationship goes unlabeled. Matilda is married and has a child; Harriet has a serious boyfriend. But on this rooftop, where the rule is not to talk about men, they are freer to be their true selves—if only they could decide what that means.

This historically infused play, directed by Katie Brook in its debut production at Ars Nova's recently inaugurated stage at Greenwich House, offers an understated examination of a queer relationship in an era where nobody casually referred to "queer relationships." Taking as its namesake a notoriously private woman whose sexuality was only revealed posthumously, Birkenmeier.'s play probes what it means to live authentically, to experience desire, and to subject oneself to social norms and repression.

The work lives and dies on the chemistry between the two leads, and fortunately Sieh and Markey ably rise to the occasion. The two actors convey genuine affection between the characters, along with the ability to taunt and aggravate one another that only comes with years of familiarity. Sieh imbues Harriet with a confident dreaminess that naturally accompanies her fascination with space and Sally Ride. Matilda is biting and audacious, but Markey subtly shows how the character's veneer of confidence cracks when she worries about how she presents to others, or how she even wants to.

One trigger for Matilda is the arrival of her acquaintance Meg (Marga Gomez), whom she has invited to the book club. Meg unapologetically presents as butch, rocks a Motörhead shirt (the costume design is by Melissa Ng), and leaves no ambiguity about her interest in women. Birkenmeier. uses the role to shift the dynamic between Harriet and Matilda, and Gomez leans into this status as a catalyst, creating a character who seems well intentioned but not unaware when her remarks might stir something up.

Rounding out the cast is Susan Blommaert as the landlady Norma, in turns comic relief and a tragic figure. The connection between Norma and the others isn't fully drawn out, but her solitary existence has its own resonance for these characters who are deciding what kinds of lives they want to live.

Birkenmeier.'s writing style and Brook's directing lean into a naturalistic presentation that strives for, and largely achieves, the feeling of authenticity. (The only writing/staging element that sometimes feels awkwardly deployed is the large number of interruptions in the text, written into the script but a bit too untidy in practice.)

Although the playwright has acknowledged that there's some invention involved in writing about a time in which she wasn't alive, she smoothly integrates an array of cultural references to evoke the period, aided in particular by Ben Williams's sound design. The set design by Kimie Nishikawa is simple, yet offers just enough to feel like a lived in space.

That's true of Dr. Ride's American Beach House as a whole. The play isn't a flashy drama filled with explosive moments. Instead of catharsis, we have emotional repression and the subjugation of desire that isn't quite allowed to ignite.

Through its two central, well realized characters, and with the help of Sieh and Markey's absorbing performances, the play offers a deep dive into a relationship unrelated to, yet somehow inexorably linked with, a major moment in history. With Dr. Ride's liftoff still a day away, Birkenmeier. invites us to live with Harriet and Matilda in a moment that is rich with possibility but held back by what must go unspoken.

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Dr. Ride's American Beach House
by Liza Birkenmeier
Directed by Katie Brook
Cast: Susan Blommaert (Norma), Marga Gomez (Meg), Erin Markey (Matilda), and Kristen Sieh (Harriet)
Scenic Design: Kimie Nishikawa
Costume Design: Melissa Ng
Lighting Design: Oona Curley
Sound Design: Ben Williams
Production Stage Manager: Alex H. Hajjar
Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Ars Nova at Greenwich House, 27 Barrow Street
Tickets: $35–$65; arsnovanyc.com
From 10/21/2019; opened 11/5/2019; closing 11/23/2019
Performance times: Mondays–Wednesdays at 7 pm; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 11/1/2019 performance

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