Thomas Burns Scully
It’s always interesting when plays about gender and sexuality get revivals. Like watching political satire from the 1960s, or films that were at one time considered ground-breaking, it’s an adventure in artistic taste, social mores and, above all, relevance. The recent revival of ‘The Heidi Chronicles’ on Broadway was a good case study of this. The play’s over-arching feminist themes and it’s final emotional monologue remained as poignant and gut-wrenchingly beautiful as ever. However, the play’s scope of cultural reference and popular opinion didn’t mesh perfectly with a modern audience, and so marked it out as a period piece. And that was a play that won a Pulitzer. So how does lesser know faire fare? That was certainly the question on my mind when I went to see The Hudson Guild’s recent production of ‘Brave Smiles… another lesbian tragedy.’ A play from the early nineties satirizing the media portrayal of lesbianism. Would it remain as relevant as MASH’s observations on war, or would it be as outdated as the original Star Trek’s observations on women?
Well, like ‘Heidi’ mentioned above, ‘Brave Smiles’ (authored by theatre troupe ‘The Five Lesbian Borthers’) pulls a little from column A and a little from column B. It nails quite a few tropes of “lesbian film” that are still easily recognizable in the modern cultural landscape. The girls in the play grow up in an orphanage under the stewardship of a repressed/ive headmistress (the wonderfully named Frau Von Pussenheimer). The main characters are all neat lesbian stereotypes: one butch, one cutesy, one bratty, etc. As a group they perform borderline sadistic initiation rituals on a newcomer to their group. As they grow up, one of them marries a man and betrays the sisterhood, only to later rekindle her lesbianism with a sordid lesbian affair with her old lesbian school friend. And, by the end of the play, all but one of them dies in some bizarre way.
Oddly enough, it’s the play’s central joke, the satirizing of tragic lesbian death in media, that feels most dated. I’m trying to think of the last drama I saw in which a lesbian died in some absurdly tragic way and I honestly am having trouble thinking of one. The days of ‘The Children’s Hour’ (which is also referenced in the play) seem a bit far gone. Feel free to correct me, dear reader, but it seems to me that the way we patronize sexual minorities has moved on in the past twenty years. However, I am obsessing over this idea of relevancy just a tad. None of this stops the play from being incredibly funny. Although a few of the tropes are dated, they are still entirely recognizable, and the writing is remarkably sharp. I was frequently in stitches.
And what’s a funny script without a funny cast? The Hudson Guild do a great job with the material. The actors they have assembled are excellent across the board. That said, a special singling out of Bernadette Maass is definitely in order. She is clearly a highly proficient comic actress. Playing Damwell Maxwell, the story’s anti-heroine, she carries herself like Julianne Moore, but has the comedic sensibility of Lucille Ball. A devastating combination. The play looks surprisingly good too. Set and costume is simple, but effective, ably conveying the feel of a cinematic parody. In general, the show just… hangs together well. Congratulations to director Jim Furlong on that front.
The nineties feel like they’re getting further and further away each day. So much so that our memories of that strange decade full of Bill Clinton, pop-punk, and the heyday of the Disney Channel are passing in to the realm of nostalgia. When works like ‘Brave Smiles’ are put up it serves as a reminder that nostalgia is overrated, particularly when social attitudes to sex are concerned. And when they are put up well, as they were here by The Hudson Guild, they remind us that smart satire may date, but it never loses it edge.