“I go so you know”
The new Ars Nova offering at Greenwich House Theater, “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” by newcomer Liza Berkenmeier, has almost all the elements of a flawless piece of theater. Interesting and topical subject matter, an American icon, Dr. Sally Ride, as an unseen but pivotal presence, snappy dialog, humor and heart, insightful direction, evocative set and stellar performances by the small but talented cast. The only thing it’s missing is a couple of unexplored, promising characters and an ending.
That said, I wouldn’t let the lack of a cogent ending deter you from seeing “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House.” Set on a rooftop in south St. Louis, Missouri on the evening of June 17, 1983, the night before Sally Ride’s launch aboard the shuttle Challenger to become the first American woman in space, the play deals with the lives of four other American women. None of whom have ever remotely had the opportunity to fulfill their potential and follow their dreams.
While Sally Ride spends the night before her history-making trip to space sequestered in a NASA beach house barbecuing away from public view, Harriet (Kristen Sieh) is hosting the weekly Two Serious Ladies Book Club meeting on her roof away from prying eyes. It’s not really a book club since they don’t read books, it’s just an excuse for Harriet and her best friend from high school through graduate school, Matilda (Erin Markey) to spend time together away from their waitressing jobs, husbands and kid – Matilda – and unadmitted boyfriend – Harriet.
That the two women share a mutual fascination with Dr. Sally Ride is evident from the radio they keep tuned to the commentary from Cape Canaveral, and the way they talk about her and compare themselves to her and her best friend from school Molly Tyson, arguing over who is Sally and who is Molly. From the beginning, it is clear that Matilda and Harriet are very close and share a lot of history from the way they burst into song together and harmonize flawlessly, to the way they squabble and drop it. By the end, it is clear that they share a lot more with Dr. Ride than either she or they are willing to admit at that point in time.
One of the things they squabble over that doesn’t get dropped, is Matilda’s invitation to the book club of Meg (Marga Gomez), a buzz cut sporting, t-shirt, cargo pants and work boot wearing, unapologetic and confident out-of-the-closet lesbian. She takes everything in stride and manages to see exactly what is going on with the two other women. Adding quirkiness and some extra comic notes are a couple of appearances by Harriet’s stuttering landlord Norma (Susan Blommaert) who has no filter and only wants Harriet to come downstairs and help her move an air conditioner.
“Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” is a very auspicious debut by Liza Birkenmeier. Her dialog is rich, funny without being jokey, and her ideas are layered and nuanced. Katie Brook’s direction keeps it all focused on a minute-by-minute basis, and every single member of the cast is marvelous. A special shout out to the set design by Kimie Nishikawa who has created the American beach house that most of us urban dwellers are so familiar with – tar beach. The folding chairs, the flamingo string lights coming from the window, the radio on a milk crate. Ah memories.
“Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” By Liza Birkenmeier, Directed by Katie Brook
WITH: Kristen Sieh (Harriet); Erin Markey (Matilda); Susan Blommaert (Norma); Marga Gomez (Meg)
Scenic Design by Kimie Nishikawa; Costume Design by Melissa Ng; Lighting Design by Oona Curley; Sound Design by Ben Williams; Casting by Henry Russell Bergstein, CSA & Lauren Port; Production Stage Manager, Alex H. Hajjar; Assistant Stage Manager, Arielle Goldstein. Presented by Ars Nova at the Greenwich House Theater, 27 Barrow Street, NYC through November 23rd. For tickets call the Box Office at 212-352-3101 or visit: https://ci.ovationtix.com/27165/production/1017895