Arts Editor Grace Novarr reviews the Saturday matinee showing of Dr. Ride’s American Beach House, directed by Elena Messinger (CC ‘23) and Kate O’Carroll (CC ‘23).

When I received my program for Dr. Ride’s American Beach House as I walked into the Lerner Blackbox Theatre for the Saturday matinee showing of the Columbia University Player’s latest production, I must admit that the title did not give me a lot to go on. Who is Dr. Ride? Is this play about a house? Why, then, is the director’s note saying that it’s a play about “two queer best friends?” 

The enigmatic title slowly unfolded its meaning across the play’s intermissionless runtime. We start with two women, Harriet (Prentice Jones, BC ‘24) and Matilda (Sofia DeSanto, BC ‘24), on a roof, gazing out at… something. Their meeting turns out to be a regularly scheduled convention of the Two Serious Ladies Book Club, though both women have a more complicated relationship with reading than the ostensible reason for their gathering would suggest. Former Catholic school students and professional poetry students, their friendship has followed them through their assimilations into heterosexuality; now, Matilda’s daughter is suffering from a stomach virus, yet she’s eschewing her parental responsibilities for quality time with Harriet, leaving her husband, Arthur, to his ambivalent fate of dealing with their child.

What, exactly, is the nature of the relationship between these two women who seem almost codependent? It certainly is more complicated than friendship, but it seems to almost swing between like and dislike. At one point, Matilda straddles Harriet while telling her a story—the audience shifted in acknowledgement of the palpable sexual tension. Yet the words exchanged between the two are often charged with barbs. At one point, Matilda says: “If one of us is brilliant, maybe it’s not you.” Harriet takes this in stride. 

As the play’s writing meandered across various conversational topics, DeSanto and Jones did an excellent job of carrying the audience’s attention through their captivating stage presences. While Harriet monologued, Matilda’s facial expressions in reaction ensured that the audience’s gaze still swung between the two. 

The script, written by playwright Lisa Birkenmeier in 2019, is always revelatory, slowly unraveling threads that seem to be dropped and then get picked back up. One of these threads is the astronaut Sally Ride, whose historic June 1983 Challenger flight is about to happen. Harriet holds a deep admiration for Sally Ride, whose impressive accomplishments form a foil to the comparative aimlessness of her own life. Yet another metaphorical resonance of Ride’s appearance in the play is made explicit when Matilda’s invitee to the book club arrives—out butch lesbian Meg (Callie Updike, CC ‘25). Meg’s confidence and amusingly bemused attitude towards the so-obviously-repressed Harriet and Matilda ignites the play, lifting it from the stagnancy it had begun to slip into at the point of her arrival, halfway through the action.  At a certain point, she asks Matilda: “Have you two had physical sex? Or is it more of an abstract kind of…” The audience roared with laughter.

Dr. Ride was visually excellent. The set comprised a desk, a rooftop edge built of bricks, and a window through which characters entered the stage. The blocking enabled the characters to play out the dynamics of their repression and yearning on a physical register while their words covered more mundane topics. Overall, the staging was impeccable.

The tone of the play took a turn for the dramatically serious when Harriet receives a phone call—her mother, who’s been in hospice care, has died. She then rants about her mother’s second family, who got to spend their lives with her while she, Harriet, was always the afterthought; this situation makes grief a complexity for Harriet. I found myself confused by the sudden introduction of all this information at such a late stage in the play. 

This issue was ultimately my largest difficulty with the play—the release of information was structured such that it was hard to find a foothold in who these characters were, as new and important elements of their emotional backstory were constantly being revealed. While this created suspense, it also created a difficulty for the actors, who faced the challenge of conveying coherent characters while also integrating new aspects into their performance constantly. The Harriet that emerged at the end of the play, who decides to let Meg drive her from St. Louis to Miami to claim the house that her mother has left for her, was not recognizable as the same woman we’d been watching on stage for the past 90 minutes. On the one hand, this transformation is the point; on the other hand, I felt that the impetus behind this transformation was not convincing. 

DeSanto’s and Jones’ chemistry, however, was always delightful, and it was nowhere more palpable than in the play’s final scene, when Jones becomes Sally Ride herself, and DeSanto becomes Molly Tyson, her college-roommate-turned-lover. In the closing scene, Ride is about to leave for space, and Tyson bids her goodbye. Ride compulsively asks her to stay the night, even though this is impossible—the astronauts are quarantined in a beach house in the night before the flight, after all. Finally, Ride runs offstage, and Tyson watches her leave. Then, she is back on the roof, becoming, once again, Matilda, contemplating the absence of her friend. She looks up at her binoculars, watching Ride’s shuttle fly through the sky. Then she puts her head in her hands and sobs, and the lights go down. 

These final moments of conflation between Ride and Tyson and Harriet and Matilda work wonderfully, demonstrating that queer yearning is the stuff that binds us all together. As Messinger and O’Carroll wrote in the director’s note, “Tonight, we are all lesbians.” So Dr. Ride’s American Beach House turned out to be the metaphorical space where friendship-turned-love is the most important force there is. And, after all, isn’t it?

Program via CUP