Review: ‘She Stoops to Comedy’

David Greenspan puts the play back in playwriting in this clever lark of a comedy about life in the theater, or life and the theater. The author, who also stars and directs, treats the stage as his sandbox. He'll set up the identity of a character, then erase it and start all over again. A long aside to the audience dissects the confusions of just such digressions.

David Greenspan puts the play back in playwriting in this clever lark of a comedy about life in the theater, or life and the theater. The author, who also stars and directs, treats the stage as his sandbox. He’ll set up the identity of a character, then erase it and start all over again — now she’s an archaeologist, now she’s a lighting designer. It’s 1950, no, 1970, no, yesterday. A long aside to the audience dissects the confusions of just such digressions.

Greenspan is clearly intoxicated by the freedom that theater allows, and it’s an infectious feeling. Some of the many plates he sets spinning wobble a bit — particularly when he begins to downplay the high spirits and shift gears into a more ruminative examination of sex, gender and relationships. But the play is consistently surprising, full of smart wordplay and inventive bits of business that poke fun at the artifices of the art form while reveling in them.

The self-apparent deceptions begin with Greenspan casting himself as Alexandra Page, a self-dramatizing actress who opens the play with a long aria that sets the preposterous tone with its great gusts of verbiage delivered at fever pitch. Greenspan recites this anguished description of Alexandra’s recent breakup with a girlfriend in a hilariously florid and occasionally incomprehensible whine, clinging dramatically to the wall.

To win her lover back, Alexandra has decided to descend on the small town in Maine where Alison Rose (Marissa Copeland) is appearing as Rosalind (get it?) in “As You Like It” (naturally). Her hope is to get herself cast as Orlando. Yes, this means Greenspan is a man playing a woman playing a man. But downtown theater watchers familiar with his rococo acting style will know that this is really not much of a stretch.

Alison herself is happy to have a chance to stretch her acting muscles. She’s a specialist in regional musical comedy who’s getting a bit exhausted. (“How many times can you play a cockeyed optimist in Pittsburgh?” Alexandra cracks.) And Alexandra is tired of playing “angry, depressed women” in pretentious modern versions of classics like “Biff at Colonus.” But her new role brings its own disquieting revelations, too: Cozying up to Alison in her guise as a man, she is privy to her lover’s cool assessments of her own flaws.

The farcical possibilities inherent in the setup are amusingly explored (Alexandra flees to the men’s room to answer a cell phone call from Alison), but Greenspan isn’t exclusively interested in presenting a traditional comedy, however untraditionally it is conceived. He spends as much time sending up some of the practicalities and conventions of contemporary theater.

Double-casting, for instance, comes in for extended ribbing, as E. Katherine Kerr plays both Kay Fein, the no-nonsense lighting designer on the production (and erstwhile archaeologist) and her ex-lover, glamorous actress Jayne Summerhouse. “I’d love to see you?” Summerhouse says, on the phone with Kay. “Would that be possible?” Why not? This is the theater, and who wants realism? The virtuosic dual monologue in which Kerr plays a long argument between these ex-lovers, flipping instantly from Kay’s bitter pragmatism to Jayne’s girlish evasions, is possibly the comic highlight of the play.

But amid the cockeyed highjinx there are also some more earnest digressions that can be deflating. The play’s gay character, an actor named Simon Lanquish (T. Ryder Smith), takes aim at the audience in a long, bitter rant that sarcastically accuses us of turning away from the painful subjects of gay men’s sufferings now that they’re no longer the flavor of the month on the stage. The point is well taken, but it’s being made in the wrong play. And the scene in which director Hal Stewart (Philip Tabor) and his assistant and girlfriend Eve Addaman (Mia Barron) describe their fluctuating emotions and thought processes as they prepare for bed doesn’t have much of a payoff.

Then again, the play as a whole doesn’t either. But that’s part of its charm: In its conscious airiness and aimlessness, it celebrates the transitory, ever-malleable nature of the theatrical form, lovingly honoring the freedom from structure that the stage can afford a writer. Greenspan would rather build a pile of pretty sandcastles than a real house. That’s an artist’s prerogative. So what if a few are a bit lopsided?

She Stoops to Comedy

Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater; 96 seats; $30

Production

A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in one act written and directed by David Greenspan.

Creative

Set, Michael Brown; costumes, Miranda Hoffman; lighting, Matthew Frey; production manager, Joshua Helman; production stage manager, Beth-Stiegel Rohr. Opened April 13, 2003. Reviewed April 20. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast

Alexandra Page - David Greenspan Kay Fein/ Jayne Summerhouse - E. Katherine Kerr Hal Stewart - Philip Tabor Eve Addaman - Mia Barron Alison Rose - Marissa Copeland Simon Lanquish - T. Ryder Smith
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