KPBS AIRDATE: May 11, 1994 >
There are more than just “Movie Queens” onstage in the play of the same name at Diversionary Theatre. All the men fairly fly across the narrowed boards of the fine new Diversionary space. But this piece isn’t about men. It’s about two fading aging stars of the thirties silver screen who once clawed each other’s eyes out in public, but pawed all over each other in private. The former lovers, long estranged, reunite in the sixties in a Broadway play. The characters are so campy that it would actually make a great drag play.
But this straight production, so to speak, really captures the essence, the humor the spoof and the message behind Claudia Allen’s mostly comic drama. The structure can be tricky: the play toggles back and forth between Hollywood in the thirties and Broadway in the sixties, with quick little snapshot-snappy scenes that require a pretty breathless pace.
But instead, we get long, languorous blackouts with interminable movement of set pieces. The scenic design is not so fabulous and elaborate that it warrants this kind of time and attention. The between-scene activity drags everything down to a snail’s pace.
On the upside, though, the sartorial challenge of the time travel is deliciously met by Winona McNitt, who does double duty in a variety of fawning lesbian roles. Director Mary L. Smith handles the flashbacks and forwards quite nimbly, as does her double cast of younger and older Meg and Adele, the titular movie queens.
There’s a lot going on here, laugh-lines and lesbian in-jokes aside. Playwright Allen has much to say about early Hollywood, the studio control of stars and its insistence on a straight lifestyle. The play also makes the point that things haven’t changed all that much. “Name three movie stars who are openly gay” says the vampy older Adele, who’s sacrificed everything for her career and lived her whole life in the closet. “Name one.” The more honest, open, out, butch Meg is left speechless.
The attraction between the lovers — both old and young — is palpable, sensual and believable. Their conflicts cross gender boundaries. There are lines that many a hetero male has let pass through his lying lips, lines like “Sometimes I need to be with other women to realize how much I want to be with you.” And lines that are familiar to gay men, too. And then there are those burning questions such as “How can you do something so intimate with somebody you barely know?” And the burning answer? “Practice.”
There’s plenty of bitchiness on board, cat-scratching galore, but also lots of poignant moments, as well as a few preachy speeches about being true to yourself and your sexuality. The dialogue is crisp, and is timed and managed just right. All the men are way over the top, but they’d otherwise be pure background. As it is, they’re mainly just spear-carriers for these Queens, regal women all, who can be funny and sexy and enlightening. Prima donnas come in all sexual stripes. Gay pride and parades notwithstanding, there will always be those who feel they must hide their nonconformity and sell their souls for success. With more than a few acidulous asides about the gender bias of Davis and Dietrich and Garbo, “Movie Queens” is a treat for star-gazers — a quirky, crooked look behind the seamy scenes of Hollywood.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.