Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Going Nowhere" (on David Greenspan's "Go Back to Where Your Are")

going nowhere

by Douglas Messerli


David Greenspan Go Back to Where You Are / Los Angeles, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, the performance I saw was on Sunday, August 14, 2016 

Playwright and actor David Greenspan’s 2011 play, Go Back to Where You Are, now running at Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, is a breezy, seaside play that might remind one of Chekov’s The Seagull—if it weren’t for the fact that this author’s works make no attempt at all to create an illusion of reality. As director Bart DeLorenzo notes in a program: despite being “set beside the ocean, following the playwright’s request, you will hear no waves crashing tonight, no seagulls overhead. When night falls, we will have no recorded crickets.” And despite the fact that one character, Bernard (Justin Huen) speaks endlessly of the birdlife on Long Island, we see and hear no birds.

       Indeed, Bernard begins the play commenting, as the playwright, “This is kind of a weird play”; and throughout characters, as in Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, take time out to speak asides to the audience. Some figures stand in frieze while others come and go. And one character, improbably sent by God from ancient Greece, who admits to the uncontemporary moniker of Passalus (John Fleck), also transforms himself from time to time into an elderly female actress, Mrs. Simmons, allowing for the actor to quick switch personas and demonstrate his acting skills. Fleck was excellent in the role, but I would have loved to have seen Greenspan himself, one of New York’s very best actors who has often done female impersonations on stage, act the role as he did in the 2011 Playwrights Horizons production.

      The occasion for this get-together of odd characters is the birthday of Carolyn, a figure who, inexplicably, never makes an appearance and who, we’re told, cooks the meal which the characters share. At the center of the get-together is Carolyn’s highly thea-ater-proclaiming mother, Claire (Shannon Holt), who is about to star as Arkadina in The Seagull, a role, for those who recall, of great hauteur and self-centeredness, that matches her own behavior as throughout the play she negatively evaluates her friends to their faces and behind their backs. She’s invited her younger brother, who lives in a small beach house nearby—the “obscure” playwright and author of the piece we’re seeing, so he claims—her unconfident and self-loathing actress friend Charlotte (Tracy Winters in the performance I saw), her unhappy son (Andrew Walke) who’s just returned from Los Angeles after the death of his gay lover, and her director Tom (Bill Brochtrup) and his set-designing lover Malcolm (Jeffrey Hutchinson), who also stands in for God. As in Chekov’s drama all of these characters—with the exception, perhaps of Claire—feel inwardly thwarted and unloved; but even Claire is to be pitied, since during the party she receives a phone call telling her that she has cancer which will kill her, so Bernard tells us at play’s end, within the year.  
       It is Passalus’ job at this event to guide the invisible Carolyn on a happier path of life, and he is warned by God not to interfere with any of the others’ lives. But Passalus, who recounts his own unhappy love affair back in Ancient Athens, simply cannot resist, particularly when he hears all their inner thoughts and falls in love with the tender nature-loving playwright. Before this witty 1-hour play comes to an end—alternating between the elderly Mrs. Simmons and himself— he’s sent Claire’s young son, Wally, packing back to LA to find new love and life, sets Charlotte right about her true talents, and temporarily, at least, patches up Tom’s and Malcolm’s failing relationship, as Tom promises to stop playing around with the chorus boys. For his busybody intrusions, God punishes him to continued life—which like Malina Makropulos of Janáček's opera The Makropulos Affair—he’d hope to finally to free himself. But what the heck, he’s fallen in love again and, more importantly, the sensitive Bernard has fallen in love with him. As Bernard finally perceives, instead of almost trying to move ahead of oneself or falling into the errors of the past, you should “go back to where you are,” a phrase that seems almost like a variation of Voltaire’s command to “tend your own garden,” or, put another way, to live fully in the present.
       For such a short work, Greenspan’s play reveals a profound interconnection between dream and reality, between past and present, despair and possibility, and 
repetition and creation. Writing of the original production, The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood argued that Greenspan’s characters were so interesting that he’d wished that Passalus had never visited them so that we might have more time to discover their inner realities. But, I believe, that is just Greenspan’s point. Life is not an illusion, but a real thing to be grasped even in the vague shadows of our comprehension about where our experiences are taking us. Chekov’s poor characters are simply trapped in an illusion of the playwright’s creation, while Greenspan’s caricatures continue to intrigue us as we are forced to imagine where life may take them. Perhaps, in the end, we can imagine that even the permanently artificial Claire had to face the reality of her own life.

Los Angeles, August 16, 2016

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