Written by David Greenspan
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Playwrights Horizons, New York City, through May 1, 2011

David Greenspan’s “Go Back to Where You Are” begins as a deceptively simple idyll about a bunch of theater people gathered at somebody’s Long Island beach house for barbecue and shoptalk. Claire is the host, a respected New York stage actress with a retinue that includes Charlotte, her less-successful actress friend, eaten up with envy and desperation; her son Wally, a writer-director stuck grinding out a sitcom in LA; her brother Bernard, a playwright whose quirky comedies Claire views dismissively; Tom, her director and former lover; and his boyfriend Malcolm, a set designer. There’s also a character named Carolyn, who is never seen. 

Oh, and then there’s God. Plus a shape-shifting demon named Passalus, who shows up for the barbecue sometimes as himself and sometimes (with no change of costume) as a 70-year-old British matron.

Yes, we’re definitely in Greenspan territory, where the simple gets twisted before you can say Pirandello. It seems that Passalus (played by Greenspan) was himself an actor long ago – 2500 years ago, to be exact, in ancient Athens – who never had much success on the stage or in his love life and died bitter and heartbroken. He has been plucked from the underworld by God and returned to Earth to perform a good deed for the unseen Carolyn. His reward will be the oblivion he seeks, but the catch is that he’s not allowed to tamper with anyone else’s life. Easier said than done. Identifying with Charlotte as an underemployed and underappreciated actor cracks his heart open. He starts wanting to free each person he meets from their illusions, their blindness, their self-imposed shackles. And when he lays eyes on Bernard, compassion turns into full-blown romantic love at first sight. 

                                           Tim Hopper, Brian Hutchinson, and David Greenspan

Like Greenspan’s last show at the same theater, “She Stoops to Comedy” (2003), which swirled from backstage comedy to post-modern literary prank to philosophical meditation on gender, reality, identity, and the essence of theater as an art form, “Go Back to Where You Are” is both a naturalistic romance and an erudite pastiche. Astute theater buffs will spot traces of classic dramas -- Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” and Ben Jonson’s “The Devil Is an Ass” as well as a few gleanings from Mary Renault’s novel “The Mask of Apollo,” which also centered on an actor from the glory days of ancient Athens -- but also nods to contemporary gay playwrights (Lanford Wilson, Terrence McNally, Harvey Fierstein). Four of the characters grieve partners who have died, and their mournful refrains are both evoke the archetypal relationship of Eros and Thanatos and acknowledge the specific impact of AIDS on Greenspan’s generation of gay men and theater artists. 

Like the masters of modernist fiction (including Gertrude Stein, one of his icons), Greenspan playfully includes the process of writing into the final product. In the midst of any given scene, characters are likely to lapse into interior monologues, speak stage directions aloud, or narrate events from outside the action, sometimes within the same sentence. Under Leigh Silverman’s superb direction, the excellent cast jumps these hoops with impeccable precision. Lisa Banes as Claire does a great job of inhabiting everything that’s grand and petty about Claire while still holding onto some secrets. As the excruciatingly neurotic Charlotte, Steppenwolf actress Marianne Mayberry is especially impressive since she was a late replacement for Mary Schulz, a longtime Greenspan veteran who had to drop out because of a family emergency. It takes fine actors like Stephen Bogardus (as Tom) and Tim Hopper (as Malcolm and, uh, God) to create full substantial presences out of Greenspan’s sometimes elliptical characterizations. I’m not sure I completely bought Brian Hutchinson’s Bernard as the object of love-at-first-sight, but I guess you could say that his tentative nerdiness becomes the perfect screen for the eternally lovelorn Passalus’s romantic projections.

Greenspan’s performance falls into another category altogether. He is an extraordinarily disciplined and well-trained actor with a gift for stylized performance that allows him to express sometimes frightening extremes of emotion. As a playwright and theater scholar and performance artist, he brings a lot of intelligence and passion to contemplating what it means existentially to be an actor. In recent years he has adapted Aristotle’s “Poetics” and Gertrude Stein’s “Plays” as lecture-demonstrations on the spiritual and artistic lineage of acting, and “Go Back to Where You Are” continues that investigation by musing on the relationship between the God-like playwright and the characters he creates, between a playwright and the actor who performs his work, both generally and within himself. 

The closing scene is a heady, ur-theatrical dance between the character of the playwright Bernard (played by the actor Brian Hutchinson) and the character of the actor Passalus (played by the playwright David Greenspan). Trippy, eh? Fans of Greenspan’s work will enjoy witnessing his ever-evolving metatheatrical mastery, though some extremely literary-minded British friends of mine having their first exposure to Greenspan found that the play’s multiple levels practically made their heads explode. Be forewarned.

CultureVulture.net, April 14, 2011