What can be said in favor of Girl Play, a film adaptation of a two-woman show about the beginning of a lesbian relationship? It means well. Its stars are nothing if not earnest. There are two touching segments involving one of the women, Robin Greenspan, and her larger-than-life Jewish mother, played by John Waters veteran Mink Stole. Other than that? It’s a failure. Perhaps the play, titled Real Girls, was worth seeing: Some of the material might have gained life in front of an audience. But the play did not make a successful transition to the screen.
In fact, nobody seems to have tried very hard to get it there. Stars Greenspan and Lacie Harmon, together with director Lee Friedlander, adapted the script, and they did so without bothering to remove the stage. The film opens in an empty theater, with Greenspan and Harmon playing themselves, telling the story of their courtship in a confessional manner. (Girl Play is based on the true story of how the two fell in love.) They speak directly to the camera, letting us know that they never meant to date, since Greenspan was in a long-term relationship and since Harmon knew herself to be incapable of commitment. They seem sorry, and a little sheepish, while at the same time clearly celebrating their union. They have built a play and a film around it, after all.
After the introduction, the women flash back to the time when they met while starring in a show together, playing lovers. (Instead of being cleverly self-referential, this feels incidental.) They take turns at narration, with each digressing into revelations about her psyche and her past, particularly past relationships. These scenes are both dramatized and narrated, sometimes to excruciating effect.
For instance, Harmon narrates a sequence in which she and her ex-lover Cass (Lauren Maher) head to a cabin for a romantic weekend. By this time in the relationship, Harmon is no longer interested in sex, and she dreads the impending intimacy. For roughly fifteen minutes, we endure Harmon’s obsessive, needling voiceover, in which she explicates the entirety of her angst-ridden chill, as we watch the women drive to a cabin and proceed to have sex. We get it. Harmon doesn’t want to have sex. Her girlfriend does. Guilt. Edit!
On the other hand, Greenspan’s stories about her relationship with her mother can be lively and enjoyable. In particular, her coming-out story, in which she tells her mother that she’s gay in a parking lot after an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, feels both important and tender. Mink Stole does a fine job of portraying a Jewish matriarch — in contrast to, unfortunately, a simpering performance by Dom DeLuise, playing the pandering theater director.
That Greenspan and Harmon are so determined to share the story of how they met and became a couple is both sweet (they certainly do love each other) and cloying: Must they advertise this love, again and again, in an eighty-minute film? Plus, the women invest almost nothing in establishing a conflict, any kind of real obstacle to their union. Sure, Robin is in a six-year relationship, and she feels honor-bound to work things through with her partner. But said partner (Audrey, played by Katherine Randolph) is painted as such a controlling, demanding bitch that we never invest in their staying together; the conclusion that Robin would be better off elsewhere is foregone. Lacie’s supposed inability to commit to any relationship could be seen as a major impediment, but we already know that she and Robin ended up together. So how much tension can there be? In fact, from the moment this film begins, with its awkward theater staging and double confession, we know exactly what’s coming.
If only these women were likable. In fact, they are likable: I have seen them do enjoyable stand-up comedy. But here, they come across as self-obsessed, self-congratulatory, and even adolescent. Despite a fair amount of lip service to the idea that relationships take work and that romance cannot rescue a person from her problems, the take-away is that true love conquers all, resolving even a lifelong fear of intimacy. And what about the premise is interesting or new? Don’t the romantic leads of plays and movies always hook up, even if they’re in relationships with other people? Isn’t that a classic story line?
If Girl Play were to work at all, it would need a real screenplay — a series of scenes, without voiceover, to dramatize the story. Then, because the punch line is the relationship’s success, we shouldn’t be spoiled immediately with the knowledge that Greenspan and Harmon are still together. And the neurosis, much as it can be a source of humor, needs to be dialed way, way back, so that we don’t feel suffocated by its endless permutations. As it is, the film feels like a vanity project by people who just couldn’t get enough distance from themselves to see that a therapized relationship story, unto itself, does not a movie make.