What might it have been like, that very first meeting of the Daughters of Bilitis, the lesbian rights organization founded by San Francisco gay icons Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon?
In “The Daughters,” playwright Patricia Cotter’s look at the cultural changes that have affected this community over the past 60 years, four women, all strangers to one another, show up for that meeting at the Castro District apartment of Peggy (Erin Anderson) and Mal (Martha Brigham, stepping in on book, quite gracefully and on only one day’s notice, for the original actor who’d had an accident).
Two of the guests (played by Molly Shaikin and Em Lee Reaves) have surreptitiously changed into men’s attire (their preferred, but in those days unacceptable, mode of dress) in the lobby before entering. There’s also youthful and unworldly Evelyn (Olivia Levine), and even-keeled Vivian (Jeunée Simon), the only black woman among whites.
Everyone wants to party except Mal, who envisions this as the beginning of a movement for gay rights. She’s prepared a list of rules, but to the others she’s a buzzkill. Peggy pours drinks and joins in on singing, dancing and spin-the-bottle. Vivian, too, who seems more serious-minded than the other guests, relaxes into the merry-making.
In this San Francisco Playhouse world premiere as part of its Sandbox Series, Cotter and director Jessica Holt present that fictionalized historical moment as a 1950s TV sitcom: one-dimensional characters, dialogue humorous but not especially witty, clothes (costumes by Chanterelle Grover) period-perfect (really ugly dresses for the hostesses and Evelyn), flirtations predictable and yet unconvincing. An appreciative opening night audience certainly provided the laugh track.
Despite a serious chat between Mal and Vivian on the balcony, Mal’s concerns get lost in the jolly shuffle.
Act 2 leaps ahead to 2015, to the closing night of the Lexington Club, the last lesbian bar in San Francisco. Now Anderson and Brigham play a pair of old-school lesbians (although they still look young) mourning the bar’s closure, and Levine reappears as a young gender-fluid woman who has no sentimental attachment to the Lex; for her “out” generation, secret meeting places are an anachronism. She meets her sexual partners online.
Cotter has chosen light comedy to dramatize and provide perspective on certain enormous social changes over time, but the issues involved do not get the attention they deserve — nor do the multiple, complex relationships, which are all too briefly and superficially presented.
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series
Where: Creativity Museum Theater, 221 Fourth St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, closes Nov. 2
Tickets: $30 to $40
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org