The Evil Friendship. Twilight Lust. Satan Was a Lesbian. The titles of woman-on-woman pulp novels of the 1950s, many of which were written by men for men, weren't terribly subtle. And they usually featured sexy dykes who suffered tragic fates due to their "perverted" desires — thus teaching a pseudo-moralistic lesson in those uptight times.
Flash forward 50 years, and behold the unbridled passions and happy endings of Pulp, a theatrical send-up of those steamy paperbacks that was written by a woman, Patricia Kane, who can craft dialogue as tight as a Maidenform panty girdle. And thanks to a sensational production by Cleveland Public Theatre, this journey back to the days of "the love that dare not speak its name" is a pure delight for most of its 100 minutes.
The storyline will seem familiar to anyone who has ever thumbed through an old novel by Ann Bannon, considered the doyenne of the less sleazy corner of this publishing genre. Terry Logan (an impressively dude-like Maggie Arndt) is a small, slim butch gal who is traveling to Chicago after leaving the WACs. She meets up with a young woman, Pepper, who happens to work in a lesbian bar called, perhaps inevitably, The Well.
Soon Terry is sharing sensuous glances with Eva Malone, a girl with a quick lip and a quicker, um, tongue who waits tables in the saloon. There is also Winny, a rather plain woman who isn't quite sure of her sexuality and occasionally performs in male drag.
But the most compelling creature is Viviane Blaine, the elegant and refined owner of the bar, on whom Terry locks and loads from the moment they meet. Trouble is, Viv is an ice queen, and Terry can't melt her frosty facade.
Under the pitch-perfect direction of Scott Plate, the performers channel old movie stars and other camp sources to craft their characters. As Viviane, Alison Garrigan is a combination of Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall, with a little of drag legend Charles Busch for good measure. Whether she's vamping in the doorways or giving advice about talking in the morning ("Before caffeine, only silence."), Garrigan is a sultry-voiced treasure. And her renditions of a couple original, bluesy songs — with lyrics by the playwright and music by Amy Warren and Andre Pluess — are surprisingly evocative.
But Sheffia Randall Dooley, who plays Eva, almost runs away with the show, nailing each line like a human air hammer. When she dumps on Winny and then is shamed by Terry into apologizing, her excuse ("It's been a hard day. A hard week. A hard life.") is bitten off with Barbara Stanwyck-ian perfection. When she's onstage, you may have a hard time focusing on anyone else.
But you should, since Elizabeth R. Wood is sweetly adorable as Winny and Kimberly Lauren Koljat survives a horrific hairdo to lend compassion to Pepper. All in all, this Pulp has the juice: hilarious in many places, with everyone happily paired up at the end.