One of my favorite adolescent pastimes involved going to a relative‘s bookshelf and probing the space behind the displayed books until I found whatever hidden pulp novel or sex manual my cousins were secretly reading. I’d developed this trick in the early 1960s when, as a bored 8-year-old, I began discovering paperbacks with names like Nymph in Need stashed on the top shelves of our kitchen or under the front seat of my dad‘s Chevy. Back then, pulp novels were serious business, occupying a lucrative publishing niche between Harold Robbins and pornography. Today their lurid cover art provides grist for the camp industry and its inventory of fridge magnets, key chains and post cards. An important component of this ephemera market has been ”queer pulp,“ whose Alexandrian library of titillating fiction about twilight sisters and ambivalent men has also spawned scholarly studies, coffee-table books and art exhibitions.

At the Jewel Box Theater Center, James Napoli’s Writing Hollywood Lesbian, 1963 takes one such long-forgotten novel, Hollywood Lesbian, and imagines its creation while incorporating actual passages from the book into the playwright‘s story. We find Donna Richards (Joan Kessler), a young screenwriter who cranks out steamy potboilers, knocking out yet another for her crass publisher (John Szura). Richards will type a scene into existence, and actors playing her characters will portray it; sometimes the author will have second thoughts, undo a plot turn and send her story onto a different trajectory.

Her setting is a hotel for young women run by a predatory dagger named Carlotta Keating (Joan Marlowe). Carlotta has a roving eye for cash-strapped ingenues but quickly tosses aside her young conquests like Popsicle sticks — until she falls in love with Elaine (Ilene Leventhal), the latest wannabe actress to check in. Has Carlotta’s heart truly melted? Can she and Elaine find happiness when Carlotta‘s burly rival Beth (Lacey Beers) and her bitchy stripper pals are breathing down their necks?

Napoli clearly knows his genre and its Victorian code, which required pat Freudian explanations for gay behavior and unhappy endings for deviant characters. As Writing’s director, Napoli employs some funny touches along the way, such as casting Carlotta and Beth, who are described by Richards as voluptuous and irresistible, with actors who are perhaps a little more voluptuous than her readers would have pruriently imagined. The production also benefits from mostly serviceable performances and from an uncredited costume design that sets the period nicely without turning it into American Graffiti.

Napoli‘s big problem is that he doesn’t exploit the story‘s rich comic potential. A similar work, F. Allen Sawyer’s Lavender Lockeroom, ran earlier this year at San Francisco‘s Theater Rhinoceros. Inspired by no novel in particular, it was a total hoot in which six actors ricocheted back and forth from a variety of pulp archetypes. Napoli lacks Sawyer’s camp sensibility, a satirist‘s ability to reduce deadpan material to fridge-magnet vignettes and post-card punch lines.

He also squanders whatever fun could be had by not making Hollywood Lesbian’s author a character in her own novel. Instead, Donna Richards has little to do but sit and type; it‘s not until Act 2 that we learn she has some conflicts with her show-business parents, but this never shakes out as anything tangible; it also doesn’t help that Kessler‘s acting range translates into consistently anemic line readings. Then there are the play’s endless scene changes — glacially paced blackouts that sap whatever momentum this production started out with. In the end, Writing is defeated by writing that is nowhere near as funny as the play‘s source material and that never reaches for the secrets hidden behind the bookshelf of acceptable literature.

WRITING HOLLYWOOD LESBIAN, 1963 | By JAMES NAPOLI | At THE JEWEL BOX THEATER CENTER, 1959 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood Through August 3

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