DAVID GREENSPAN: A Man Plays a Woman, Without Any Disguise

The central character in David Greenspanís new play, She Stoops to Comedy, a lesbian actress named Alexandra Page, spends most of the first scene offstage in the bathroom preparing an elaborate disguise. Sheís decided to audition for the role of Orlando in a production of Shakespeareís As You Like It in which her girlfriend Alison has been cast as Rosalind. Because their relationship is on the rocks, Alexís scheme is partly a jealous loverís effort to spy on Alison and partly a bid to woo her back. So ingenious is her costume that when she finally emerges from the bathroom, in slacks, a short- sleeved shirt, furry arms and a butch haircut, Alex looks exactly likeÖDavid Greenspan!

The stunning resemblance isnít entirely surprising. As the director of the show, which opens tonight at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in the newly refurbished Playwrights Horizons complex on Theater Row, Mr. Greenspan has cast himself as the female lead and plays the role without a stitch of drag. 

"I'm mimicking the old Elizabethan convention in which a young actor would play Rosalind, who then disguises herself as a man, so in the character's disguise, the actor would look more like himself," Mr. Greenspan, 47, said in a recent interview. "Also, I'd seen a number of pieces where men were disguised as women or vice versa and people were persuaded. Except that it's never completely persuasive, particularly in film. Even in Boys Don't Cry, Hilary Swank never looked like a boy to me. I don't think anyone seeing Some Like It Hot believes Tony Curtis or Jack Lemmon really pass themselves off as women. Yet the other characters in the story are fooled by them. And I buy that. It's one of the things I love about the theater. Even more than film, it's about the fun-of-pretending aspect and calling forth the imagination of the audience."

The joke on theatrical cross-dressing turns out to be only the first of many twists in a play that swirls from backstage comedy to post- modern literary prank to philosophical meditation on gender, reality, identity, and the essence of theater as an art form. As a playwright, Mr. Greenspan said, he relies on heightened language as a theatrical tool for stimulating the imagination, also a tribute to Shakespeare. "Thereís a passage in The Merchant of Venice: ĎLook, how the floor of heaven/is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.í Well, gosh, you canít get a set thatís going to give the audience such a vast beautiful view of the sky. So thatís an inspiration to me, too."
In addition to appropriating some Shakespearean language and gender-bending, She Stoops to Comedy takes its plot from Frederic Molnarís The Guardsman. And Mr. Greenspan acknowledges lifting ideas from Jean Anouilh, Thornton Wilder, and a mid-1980s performance art piece by Philip Dimitri Galas called Mona Rogers in Person. This love of pastiche suggests a kinship with Charles Busch and the late Charles Ludlam, two other openly gay actor-writers like Mr. Greenspan who have performed in and out of drag without any particular investment in certifying their masculinity. 

The playís references to Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, however, point to yet another level of Mr. Greenspanís peek-a-boo game with reality. Like the masters of modernist fiction (including Gertrude Stein, one of his icons), he playfully includes the process of writing into the final product. In the midst of a scene, characters are likely to lapse into interior monologues, speak stage directions aloud, or narrate events from outside the action. 

This cheeky dismantling of narrative convention is partly what excited the attention of Playwrights Horizonsí artistic director, Tim Sanford, a former philosophy major himself. "Davidís plays are intricate and sophisticated and philosophically nuanced," Mr. Sanford said in a phone interview. "Post-modern literary scholars could really go to town with his triple-level works, but at the same time theyíre incredibly entertaining."

Although She Stoops to Comedy is Mr. Greenspanís 19th play since he started writing in 1986, the production at Playwrights Horizons is his first in nine years and his most prominent uptown staging ever. He started gaining an ardent following in the late 1980s with the work he created at Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art in SoHo, and in 1990 the late Joseph Papp hired him (along with George C. Wolfe and Michael Greif) to direct a season of plays at the Public Theater. 

At the time, it was thrilling to get the opportunity to stage three shows for Joseph Papp (a Japanese play called Gonzo the Lancer and Congreveís The Way of the World in addition to his own unruly epic farce Dead Mother, or Shirley Not in Vain). In retrospect, Mr. Greenspan said, "I felt a little over my head. Iím not sure I was ready to direct the Congreve or to have a whole season at the Public." 

After the mixed reception of his season at the Public, Mr. Greenspan retreated from playwriting for a while and concentrated on acting in other peopleís work. Thatís when mainstream theatergoers began to notice his peculiar style of acting, ferocious yet distanced. 

Far removed from the naturalism of TV and movies, his performances in the Off-Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band (which won him an Obie Award in 1997), Tennessee Williamsí Small Craft Warnings at the Worth Street Theater, and Kathleen Tolanís The Wax (to name a few) were extremely stylized, riveting, even scary. But nothing could top the roles Mr. Greenspan created for himself to play. No one who saw it will ever forget the scene in The Home Show Pieces where he sat on the toilet obsessively practicing a note-perfect imitation of Barbra Streisand singing "People." Ditto his performance in Dead Mother in which he played a man who impersonated the virtuosically hysterical title character -- again, not in drag but sporting a single string of pearls.

"I think Greenspan is probably all-round the most talented theater artist of my generation," said Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America and other plays. "He fuses psychologically grounded American narrative realism with high modernismís philosophical concerns, including the way that the artifice of art, and especially the theater, is the perfect metaphor for human consciousness. But what I find so amazing about Davidís work also makes it incredibly hard to describe. Because a lot of the most stunning things heís done were dependent on the matrix he creates as actor-writer-director."

Asked to discuss the origin of his extreme performing style or his literary mischief-making, Mr. Greenspan looks somewhat baffled, as if he doesnít quite know what youíre talking about. He looks like a born actor, with his impeccable orthodonture, slender frame and formal posture. Yet his demeanor is as modest offstage as it is demonically possessed on. He doesnít lack confidence, he simply declines to engage in grandiosity or theory-spinning.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, he said he grew up listening to musicals on tapes and records. "Especially when you encounter them outside of a production, those ballads or high-voltage songs are like little monologues, and some of them are very intense. I think that had an impact on me." Stephen Sondheimís musicals made a big impression, especially A Little Night Music, which he saw repeatedly as an usher at the Shubert Theater in Century City during his last year of high school. He studied drama the University of California at Irvine, where he got excited about literature, ballet, and modern dance. "Most of my acting assignments were in student-directed productions, preparing me, I suppose, for a career off-off-Broadway," he said wryly.

He moved to New York in 1978, got a restaurant job, and started auditioning. "My first job was Peribanez and the Comendador of Ocana, a Lope de Vega play at the New York Theatre Ensemble," he recalled. "It was almost a stereotype of your first off-off-Broadway play." Not finding work that matched his talents, he began collaborating with choreographers and writing monologues for himself.

At Home, he created a number of plays, including 2 Samuel 11 Etc., that were characterized by the kind of extremely explicit sexual content -- including simulated copulation and masturbation -- rarely seen in theater outside of the early plays of Wallace Shawn (Our Late Night, A Thought in Three Parts) and recent plays by Christopher Shinn (The Sleepers, Where Do We Live), who studied playwriting with Mr. Greenspan at New York University.

"Sex and sexuality has been part of my experience as a gay man, and I bring that to my own writing," said Mr. Greenspan, who lives in Manhattan with his long-time partner, the painter William Kennon. "Sometimes itís been a kind of experiment. Can I put something thatís explicitly sexual onstage? There are a couple of times when I crossed the line and learned I donít want to go back there -- too explicit. But Iíve always been interested in moments of private life, the internal life, even if itís sexual matters in someoneís head."

His more recent work includes Son of an Engineer (1994) in which nuclear doom sends a suburban family fleeing to Mars in a rocket ship, and The Myopia (1998) an adaptation of Aristotle's Poetics that somehow centers on the presidency of Warren Harding. These plays are so scenically fantastical or densely literary that they are practically unstageable, so Mr. Greenspan has mostly chosen to perform them in a one-man reading format.

She Stoops to Comedy, on the other hand, seems to spring directly from Mr. Greenspan's enjoyment of being a hired hand in other people's productions. In his most recent gig, he was the understudy for both Edna Turnblad and her husband, Wilbur (the roles played by Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa), in the hit Broadway musical Hairspray. Although he only got to go on once, for Mr. Latessa, the job reflects Mr. Greenspan's one-of-a-kind reputation in the theater community.

"What many of us admire about Davidís work is how utterly unique a voice he has and how it retains that uniquessness as it explores other cultures and other periods," said Anne Cattaneo, the literary manager for Lincoln Center Theater. Ms. Cattaneo arranged for Mr. Greenspan to work with director Chen Shi-Zheng on adapting the 13th century Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao for the Lincoln Center Festival next summer. "Heís so intelligent, so curious and thorough, that he makes for a very responsive collaborator," she said. "And as an actor, he knows the theater inside out. Like Shakespeare, heís a man of the theater."

An edited version of this article appeared in the New York Times, April 13, 2003