Zebra Crossing Theatre

at the Edgewater Theatre Center

One scene in Claudia Allen’s new play says it all. Two famous Hollywood film stars of the 30s have just come home with their male companions from a studio-approved double date. Suddenly the conventional couples break apart, whirl around, and the newly formed same-sex couples kiss deeply. The newsreels never showed this.

As entertaining as it is well-meant, Movie Queens, a Zebra Crossing Theatre world premiere, retrieves a lot of truth that never made it on celluloid. The playwright (author of Victory Gardens’ Jeff-winning The Long Awaited) contrasts the past and present lives of Adele Montrose and Meg Elliot, fictional former movie queens who were also once tempestuous lovers. The women’s younger selves share the stage and the story with their older selves, revealing just how much the movie queens have won and lost over half a lifetime.

The present time is the early 80s; after a long separation, Adele and Meg have left semiretirement to star together on Broadway. For the famously feuding golden girls it’s no easy reunion. Though Adele has been a recluse for many years on a Caribbean island, she’s still playing the grande dame–late for rehearsals, succumbing to drink and self-pity, feeling old and scared that her comeback will go nowhere. Above all, Adele is still locked away in her closet, unable to admit that her love for a woman makes her a lesbian.

Meg on the other hand is a life force and a half. Blowsy, horny, and unrepentant, she likes who she is and loves those like her; she still scores at dyke bars (even if the girls she picks up saw her first on the late, late show). Naturally she can’t endure Adele’s judgmental caution–when Adele says, “You should be dating someone your own age,” Meg replies, “I’ve been cruising the cemeteries . . .”

As the women rake up the past, flashbacks fill out their uneasy history in Hollywood as major stars. Meg was featured in Busby Berkeley musicals, and Adele played Madonnas and other icons of virtue. Meg falls hard for Adele but finds her paranoid prudery hard to take. “Adele always likes to cause a stir,” she says, “but never a scandal.” Fearing that a spying maid will squeal to the studio, the career-minded Adele can never invite Meg to her boudoir.

Competing for the same Oscar strains their relationship, but not half as much as Meg’s fear that she means less to Adele than Adele’s career does. The final blow comes when Adele capitulates to the studio and consents to marry, hoping her marriage will shelter her real love. Meg despises Adele’s hypocrisy: “I don’t want it to be easy!” Her parting words are “Have a good life. Try not to degrade yourself any more than you absolutely have to.”

Fifty years later, it’s no easier. Meg argues, “So many more people are out of the closet today. If we’d been together now, we could have been more honest without risking everything.” Adele answers bitterly, “There’s just as much pressure to stay hidden in Hollywood as there ever was. Name me three living movie stars who are openly gay. Name me one.” Meg still won’t take any crap from those who aren’t out: appearing on a talk show, she deftly puts a headline-hunting interviewer still in the closet himself in his place.

Happily, on the night of their Broadway opening, the lovers work it out. Breaking through her usual sourpuss persona, Adele admits she took the Broadway part just to see Meg. Reaching out to stroke Meg’s hair, she whispers, “I’m so glad there’s longevity in my family.” Meg answers, “Let’s not waste any more time.”

Though Movie Queens never forfeits its humor to editorialize, the play makes us taste the time wasted for these two. The steamy, hard-kissing ardor of the young Adele and Meg contrasts sharply with their battered later selves, and we see how much the world has worn them down. But Allen makes the older Meg’s resilience feel just as real as their battered state. That’s ground for hope.

Like the late James Kirkwood’s Legends! Allen’s serious confection relishes its name-dropping glamour mongering a bit too much. But Allen also sabotages the fantasy to reveal how treacherous a manufactured fame can be for gay artists. Though the play’s formula–alternating flashbacks and present-tense confrontations over 28 scenes–is predictable, schematic, and at times a bit facile, Allen gives these clashes urgency and warmth.

Marlene Zuccaro’s surefire direction shows a clear sympathy for the script; spontaneous and heartfelt, it never places the play’s abstract passions above its very real people. Adrienne Solid as the vibrant older Meg seldom resorts to any outsize Auntie Mame theatrics; Solid delivers a generous survivor who loves life every bit as much as she’s lived it. As the mature Adele, Nancy Lollar has a deadly deadpan that conveys well her compromised character’s disillusionment. She’s less successful at showing us Adele’s box-office charisma.

Madelyn Spidle strikes sparks as the younger Meg. Like a young Katharine Hepburn, she’s palpably eager for life and unwilling to sell herself short. Just as fresh but much more muted, Laurena Mullins’s Adele blows hot and cold as she wavers between her fears and her love. There’s nothing forced or formulaic in the lovers’ uncensored love scenes, the sultriest stuff since Bailiwick Repertory opened Secrets.

David Wagner and Lar Horgen hold their own as the starlets’ gay companions (the latter’s character is modeled after Ramon Novarro, who was murdered in 1968 by a male prostitute). Eileen Niccolai does her best in the bratty, thankless role of the Broadway director who receives a ton of gratuitous abuse from the ex-movie queens. Lee Roy Rogers delivers fine character work as Adele’s wisecracking, Eve Arden-style confidante.

Zuccaro’s sound design fairly glows with vintage 30s melodies. More of these music bridges might have helped the sometimes deadening scene changes. Showing invincible good taste, Zuccaro has not included a single number from the 80s.