The Bird Hole, a fictional lesbian bar where the entire 90 minutes of the new play "Cold," is set in a single scene, was once the go-to place in Chicago – but that was when feminism was a war cry and many lesbians were slowly opening their closets. Now, the place is frozen in time and sort of a dump. Its modern competition has overwhelmed it in a new era.

 

That, in a nutshell, is what "Cold" is about, but it's also about the differences in living as a lesbian back in the uptight "then" and living as one in the more casual, accepting "now." Sarah Pappalardo's play is being given a world premiere by Quince Productions, which is running the 3d annual Gayfest!, with four full productions plus one-night performances and readings. "Cold" was one of those readings last year.

It's an intriguing but talky play that would be better were it 15 minutes or so shorter. Some of that could have been accomplished by pepping up director Will Steinberger's staging to make "Cold" a lot hotter to watch. For about the first half-hour, you can just imagine Steinberger inserting a beat between every character's lines in the dialogue. Those little pauses don't do much for a script that begins to come alive only later on.

The storyline for "Cold" – that this historic bar, now draining money, may need to be sold to a big, gentrifying real-estate developer – is secondary to the character studies it offers. Pappalardo contrasts the bar's two owners, from the old times, with two college kids who come in to get away from the frenzied forced fun at the other bars in town that night. One is a happy-go-lucky student (Mary Beth Shrader) who came out at a much younger age, and her pal is a boyish-looking dyke (played earnestly by Merci Lyons-Cox) who excels in graduate studies and lives as a male.

These two are the future the bar owners once fought for – and now that the future is standing in front of them, was the fight a success? While "Cold" doesn't always earn the little explosions in its banter, the play is a serious examination of expectations and disappointments, from the perspectives of both generations. It's also a good look at gender issues within the gay community, although Pappalardo can't resist going overboard: It's not enough that a married, father-to-be real-estate agent (Michael Bartlett) who barges into the bar a couple times is a bumbler. Pappalardo is compelled to give the character an off-hand and surprising line that he's "not even that gay" in the play's last minutes, which doesn't gild the lily as much as smother it.

"Cold" really centers on the two bar owners – the pair of young customers essentially provide a sounding board for these older, wizened women, who've both lost partners, one to death and the other to a man. One of the owners, Helen, is played by Jackie Gordon, whose performance is a mystery to me. Helen gave the bar its persona – we're told everybody called her "Bar Mom." And she has what could be Mother Earth lines. But little of this peeks through in Gordon's interpretation, which concentrates on the washed-up quality of the woman, and delivers her as someone without the chops to have been a bar owner, let alone a legendary Bar Mom.

Linda Schapley is excellent as the other owner, also named Linda. Schapley is the organizer, the business partner with the business sense and a militant manner. When she looks at anyone else, her face says "insufferable" and her delivery pounds in the nails. Schapley, in real life, had taken ill and left hospital care to perform opening night and (hopefully) through the run. That's seriously commendable – but she needn't take any extremes to bring off the role with such precision.
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"Cold" runs at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, intermittently through August 24. Other Gayfest! events are at the Adrienne Theatre. A full schedule is at www.quinceproductions.com.