No one in the theater looks more like an Al Hirschfeld sketch of himself than David Greenspan. The fastidious actor’s features could be a few short pen strokes — the high forehead, the cheekbones like cliffs, and the forever-smiling mouth with a chin that seems to point at the space between his feet. He’s so unmistakable, in fact, that it’s very strange to find yourself looking at his totally individual mug and seeing a dozen different people. In Greenspan’s show “The Myopia,” his carefully modulated characters include Koreen, a Rapunzel-like ingenue who bickers with her mother, Yetti, and her meathead husband, Febus. Then there’s Warren G. Harding, but more on that later. The script looks like a full-blown play, but in performance it’s really just Greenspan, reading the stage directions aloud and creating voices and facial expressions — entire faces, practically — for each character.
Greenspan has said in interviews that he hates expensive pyrotechnic stage magic. In “Myopia,” he explains why, when, after observing teasingly that some extremely successful shows are “inherently untheatrical,” he simply tells us about a location and we are there with him — no FX necessary.
This seems simpler than it is. In order to create a place on the stage, after all, the only thing you need to do is describe it adequately. But Greenspan’s great gift is the ability to read any line with total conviction. When he employs that gift here, he’s able to tell us about crazy, ridiculous things — a woman whose hand is bigger than her husband! A husband who’s writing a musical about Warren G. Harding! Warren G. Harding, frustrated with a donkey named Dearie! — and we accept them without question.
Greenspan does all this while facing us sitting calmly in a chair (placed and lit by designer Peter Ksander on an otherwise blank stage), doing his charming best to explain himself and talking about how an object’s representation isn’t the same as the object itself. Magritte would agree, but he’d have to paint a picture of a pipe to explain it. Greenspan simply resorts to his metatheatrical I-say-it-therefore-it-is magic.
And that, really, is the best kind of stage magic. On weekends, if you really want to know how the trick is done, you can see Greenspan perform “The Myopia” in rep with a talk by Gertrude Stein, abridged from her book “Plays.” It’s a little like attending the world’s most wonderful grad-school lecture: Greenspan understands the text perfectly, so his reading of it is a better exegesis than reading the book yourself, but it’s still an exegesis and not quite theater. Ksander blessedly leaves the house lights half-up during this performance, which helps us pay attention (a dark theater with nothing but dramatic theory by Gertrude Stein going on is like a double-dose of Lunesta).
The Myopia,” on the other hand, is triumphant theater, even though it’s not entirely clear how everything fits together in the end. The domestic troubles of Febus and Koreen, for example, have a clever working-class-mythic resolution, but President Harding is left to his own devices just as his story starts to sound familiar. Still, the oblique climax seems appropriate, mostly because Greenspan has so skillfully kept us from wondering how things were going to turn out by inviting us to marvel at the world he creates. Ultimately, the show’s gentle politics, theory and storytelling with special effects by fiat add up to a sort of anti-Avatar, with one guy genially doling out handcrafted sights and sounds that venture beyond anything you could imagine. Well, not without his help, anyway.