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Jane Blass and Julia Neary in Pulp
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
About Face Theatre, the Chicago troupe that co-developed Broadway's I Am My Own Wife, hits the jackpot again with its current offering, the much more light-hearted Pulp by Patricia Kane. This thoroughly enjoyable world premiere is an affectionate parody of the lurid lesbian fiction of the 1950s. Like a good noir film of that era, Pulp clocks in at a pithy, fast-moving 90 minutes during which Kane makes every word count and director Jessica Thebus makes every move an amusing one in this tale fueled by "heat, hormones and whiskey."

It's 1956 and tough Terry Logan musters out of the WACs after one fling too many with a general's daughter. After a final night with her sergeant, Terry heads for steamy summertime Chicago where she quickly becomes the focus of attention at The Well, the teeming-with-sex women's bar that's the main locale of Pulp. Femme fatale Bing takes up with Logan, declaring her "the new butch in town." But Logan doesn't like labels. "I'm a lesbian plain and simple. I don't make any bones about it," she declares three or four times. And Logan soon yearns for Vivian, the mysterious, glamorous and seemingly untouchable owner of The Well.

A half-century ago lesbian pulp (and gay pulp, too) always ended unhappily. Many authors were themselves lesbians, but they knew better than to give true love its due. In a Faustian bargain, writers and their readers accepted moralistic denouements as the price to be paid for voicing the love that dare not speak its name. Such hypocrisy being gone with the wind, Kane not only happily pairs off three sets of lovers by the end of Pulp, but also has immense good fun with the punchy style of the genre, and the lure of lesbian bars, drag kings, and the appeal of Barbara Stanwyck.

This Pulp fiction not only is comedy, but musical comedy as each character takes a turn providing entertainment at The Well. Blending seamlessly with such standards as "Too Close for Comfort" and "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die" are four period-perfect original songs with words by Kane and music by Amy Warren and Andre Pluess. When Kane turns a lyric such as "Lips that taste of tears lose their taste for kissing," it just doesn't get any better.

Kane creates her world with just five performers (playing six roles), each one shaped by Thebus into a piquant type who can hold her own singing as well. Julia Neary is trim and petite but never delicate as jeans-wearing Terry Logan, the tough Army vet. Lesley Bevan as Bing is a long-legged and self-aware seductress. Hanna Dworkin is Pepper the bartender, the lovable, plump wise-cracker. Tall Jane Blass, with hair cut short, is square-jawed and mannish Winny, the champion skeet shooter and drag king star. Finally, Amy Warren makes a buxom and alluring Vivian with Bette Davis eyes, elegantly costumed by Janice Pytel in drop-dead eveningwear. Under Thebus they master the deadpan delivery of heightened language, and drop double entendres with just the slightest dip of the eyelids.

The design team of John Dalton (sets), Darin Keesing (lighting), and Micky York (props) complete the theatrical illusion with their quintessential 1950s tavern interior: Deco Revival bar, pyramiding shelves of bottles, soft mahogany-toned lighting. They've richly amplified the cramped Victory Gardens Studio Theater, making it appear larger than it is.

Since About Face Theatre is a serious company using "the lens of gender and sexual identities to examine human experience," Kane injects a mild (and off-stage) subplot about two of the women involved with men; a catalyst for larger positive statements about self-identity and acceptance. But overwhelmingly, Pulp is fast and sassy pure entertainment that's likely to sell out the run (through March 20) in its small venue. This show could -- and should -- have "legs," which is showbiz talk for an extended theatrical life in other productions. Pulp would seem a natural for a very long Off-Broadway run at the least.

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