It is particularly fitting that Lance Ringel’s new play, “In Love with the Arrow Collar Man,” employs a teacher’s lecture as a framing device. That's because this modest piece shines a light on a little-known chapter in queer New York history, the nearly 50-year love affair between the pioneering illustrator J.C. (Joe) Leyendecker, and his debonair model, Charles Beach.
While we learn much about this maverick couple and the burgeoning ad biz in the first half of the 20th century, it hardly feels like a lesson. The story is not only fascinating but well delineated — Ringel has chosen key plot points for maximum drama. The prevailing throughline is whether their brazen, openly homosexual relationship will ultimately cause their thriving studio to come crashing down.
The play opens in the present with an astute art teacher (Joanna Parson) discussing the Golden Age of Illustration in American Life, paired with projected images of Joe’s work, such as iconic Saturday Evening Post covers and Arrow Collar ads featuring the handsome (some might say beautiful), impeccably turned-out Charles.
Flash back to 1901, where 17-year old Charles, hungry for modeling work, visits the Leyendecker studio on East 32nd Street, run by Joe and his brother, Frank (the excellent Rupert Simonian), who is also a talented artist. And also gay.
Although Frank succeeds in coaxing the boy to strip off his shirt for a “test sketch,” it is the broodingly attractive Joe who wins his heart. The sibling rivalry grows fierce, as the brothers compete for art commissions, power, and men.
When the “lesser Leyendecker,” as Frank is known, turns to drink and drugs, Joe takes control of the company, and together with his beloved muse builds a successful business, erecting a mansion in New Rochelle where they would throw wild gay parties, incensing their sister (Evelyn Peralta). The career-destroying gossip columnist Walter Winchell (Justin Bennett) tries to weasel his way into one of their notorious soirées, posing a threat to their cozy enterprise.
“Arrow Collar Man,” directed with sensitivity by veteran actor/ dramatist Chuck Muckle, follows the trajectory of the couple’s personal and professional lives, which were intertwined through 1951, when Joe died of a heart attack at age 77. For their part, the director and playwright know a thing or two about long-term partners in work and love. Amazingly, they are spouses who have collaborated for nearly the entire 41 years they have been together.
We learn one reason that the Arrow Collar Man became such a celebrity was his fresh, clean-cut, heroic American image, displacing the fusty whiskered gents of the late 19th century. If he was the male answer to the Gibson Girl, he surpassed her in popularity because folks thought he was real, attested to by the 17,000 fan letters he received each month at the peak of his stardom. In a way, Charles Beach was America’s first advertising sex symbol, yet today he is all but forgotten.
We also get a glimpse of Joe’s competition with a younger upstart named Norman Rockwell (Steven Trolinger), who, as we all know, ended up surpassing him in fame, though some argue that Joe deserves to be in the history books more than Rockwell. Unlike his rival, Joe never relied on photographs, insisting on drawing from life.
To be sure, this micro-budget, Equity-approved showcase lacks polish, and the performances are a mixed bag. There is no set to speak of, and the lecture scenes could be integrated more smoothly into the narrative flow.
Ian Brodsky, as Joe, does a fine job navigating the tricky transition from eager artist to savvy businessman. Jack D. Martin lends an alluring confidence to Charles, making it clear that he’s not just a pretty face (in fact, Charles ran the Leyendecker household for decades). The partners considered themselves, for all intents and purposes, “married.”
And what better venue to showcase a slice of New York history than the landmark, gloriously ramshackle Theatre 80 St. Marks with its storied adjoining tavern, born as a speakeasy during Prohibition, which has seen its share of luminaries like Thelonious Monk and a young Frank Sinatra. A draw for bohemian types, it’s easy to imagine Joe and Charles tossing back Gin Rickeys at the massive wooden bar, scoping out guests for their next big bash.
IN LOVE WITH THE ARROW COLLAR MAN | Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Pl., btwn. First & Second Aves. | Nov. 15-16 at 7 p.m.; Nov. 17-18 at 9 p.m.; Dec. 1 at 9 p.m., Dec 2 at 7 p.m. | $18.50 at web.ovatio