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Free to be TV lesbians, circa 1972

Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater alumni Julie Klausner and Sue Galloway as Joan and Betty, with Shylock the Owl, in “Free to Be Friends.” (Courtesy of the artists)

Though they may never win awards for being brave enough to play gay, Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater alumni Julie Klausner and Sue Galloway were rewarded with plenty of laughs this month for their Fringe Festival staging of “Free to be Friends” at the 13th Street Repertory Company. This stage version parody of 1970s children’s show “The Magic Garden” and album “Free to Be… You and Me” showcases the folk-singing wisdom of lesbian partners Betty and Joan as they attempt to find their slice of heaven on the Enchanted Patio.

In this hilarious skewering of lesbian (in)tolerance, former Great Neck, Long Island schoolteacher Joan Stein has left her husband and kids to team up with wide-eyed blonde Betty Maddox, an escapee from a macramé cult, the Macramaniacs. The two envision a world where social and political dissent go hand in glove with quality children’s entertainment, wrapped up in tidy little songs like, “Boys and Girls Are Different in the Pants,” and “Pancakes, Pancakes, Vietnam.”

Klausner plays Joan, the older, Jewish crooner who preaches tolerance for everyone who is exactly like her, simultaneously hurling a barrage of anti-male and anti-Semitic jokes at puppet character Shylock the Owl. Galloway is pitch-perfect in the role of Betty, a younger, upbeat follower who is handy with a guitar—and secretly straight. The couple makes collages from Mod Podge (their sponsor), bake Self-Esteem Cookies—“They’re as delicious as you think they deserve to be!”—do yoga, and read jokes from the Chuckle Patch, all while tackling important life lessons for kids.

But the feel-good façade of ‘70s-era acceptance is worn dangerously thin as Betty and Joan touch on subjects like Joan’s tight-fisted nature and addiction to cat tranquilizers, and Betty’s habit of suggesting chore-based activities in lieu of fun. A cameo appearance by Joan’s aging mother (John Gemberling) ends with Joan putting mom out to pasture after her barrage of anti-lesbian comments gets to be too much. The hostesses’ strained interpersonal relations are played up for laughs, as is the lesbian subtext. The pair even berates Shylock the Owl to the point of homicide; he finally shoots Betty in the head—causing little immediate damage.

Klausner said much of the inspiration for the characters came from Carol Demas and Paula Janis, hosts of “The Magic Garden,” a regional show on WPIX in 1972; and the pet project of “That Girl!” star Marlo Thomas, an album of children’s songs called “Free to Be… You and Me.” Klausner mercilessly, comically lambastes lesbian separatism, prompting one critic to question, “What did lesbians ever do to you?”

“What haven’t they done to me?” Klausner replied, laughing. “Seriously though, I like gay people; I find them to be brighter than straight people, in all earnestness. But I think it’s sort of subversive for two straight girls to be doing a lesbian act.”

She went on to discuss her childhood love of “The Magic Garden,” and her later realization that hosts Carol and Paula were probably “a little too close. There were some overtones there. Some inappropriate giggling there, in the Chuckle Patch.” Klausner freely admits to borrowing liberally from other comedic sources. The song, “It’s Great to be a Lesbian in 1972” is a parody of a tune in “Mary Poppins,” and her lightning-fast satire and sight gags hearken directly to cult classics like the Comedy Central series “Strangers With Candy,” in which Klausner appeared. The jokes are sometimes a bit strained, but the duo’s overall comic timing is stellar and their chemistry unquestionable. The “surprise” ending leaves tragedy in its wake, Betty bleeding from the head (and pregnant), and Joan faced with the undesirable prospect of returning to her family and unfulfilling job. All in all, pretty much what one would expect.

Klausner and Galloway bring Joan and Betty to life in Technicolor, patch-pocket bellbottoms. The duo is in the process of recording a Betty and Joan album, and has performed together at Joe’s Pub, The Knitting Factory’s “Loser Lounge,” Galapagos “Art Jam,” Mo Pitkin’s, and Ars Nova.

Still, filling the seats at a two-woman show about fake lesbians can be a strain, and realizing that all their friends and family had seen the show, Klausner said, “At a certain point we’re like, let’s do it at the Fringe, because we’ve never done that before. It might help us all get something different out of it!”

Judging by the capacity crowd and the wild reception given “Free to Be Friends,” a tragicomic look at lesbian TV hosts on a spiraling downward path was just the something different festival fans are looking for.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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