A CurtainUp Review
Go Back to Where You Are
By Elyse Sommer
The plays he's penned tend to feature him as a soloist or main player and require close attention to understand just what's going on. That was the case for She Stoops to Comedy which launched the Playwrights Horizons Peter Sharp Theater and last Year's Myopia at the Atlantic Theater's second stage — and is again true for his return to the Peter Sharp with Go Back Where You Are.
This latest written by and starring Greenspan venture not only demands close attention to avoid confusion as to what's real, what's a play, and who needs rescuing and from what — but a willingness to swallow Greenspan's rather too fanciful conceit. Even Greenspan's fans, and I'm among them, are likely to find his performances this time around quite a bit more idiosyncratic than usual and, yes, somewhat self-indulgent.
Greenspan has obviously written Go Back Where You Are for himself. We meet his character, Passalus, on an Eastern Long Island beach after a very long hiatus in Hell, wishing only to be nothing in nowhere. However, it seems God has commissioned him to get the heck out of Hell for a rescue mission, involving one person. If he succeeds he'll get his wish for "Oblivion. Annihilation of the soul." If he strays from his assignment, he'll be doomed to live life all over again.
While this whimsical otherworldy figure is the plot pivot, this isn't strictly a star vehicle. There are seven other characters, all with their feet firmly planted in the present. Like Passalus they are theater people. All play their parts superbly and with restraint (I mean that in a good way). Leigh Silverman sees to it that the real, surreal and metatheatrical elements come together naturally. The work of the design team is spare but quite elegant.
Mr. Greenspan's visitor from the other world calls for the sort of excessively mannered acting in which he specializes. I was therefore willing to give him a pass on his going somewhat too over-the-top here. Greenspan-can-do-no-wrong loyalists will probably pooh pooh my even voicing reservations and laugh their heads off. I also found the conceit driving this play rather too clever for its own good. Without going into too much detail: The setting is at the Long Island beach house of Claire (Lisa Barnes), a successful actress. Some scenes take place near an older, less modern, house where Claire and her brother Bernard (Brian Hutchinson), a not too successful gay playwright and playwriting teacher spent their youthful summers. This is where Bernard meets Passalus whose assignment from God is not to help him but his niece and Claire's daughter Carolyn strike out on her own (Carolyn whose birthday it is is never seen because she's busy in the kitchen preparing the lunch, which tells you something about why she needs Passalus or someone to send her away from being a fancy maid to her mother).
The visitors for whom set designer Rachel Hauck has set out assorted deck chairs include Claire's friend Charlotte (Mariann Mayberry), also an actress but, like Passalus in his ancient Greece life, her career is a no-starter and she's currently desperate for work, a desperation which her friend and hostess does little to relieve. Also on hand is Claire's friend and director Tom (Stephen Bogardus), his too frequently unfathful partner partner Malcolm (Tim Hopper, also doubling as God), and Claire's son Wally (Michael Izquierdo) who adds to the high Gay character count.
As Hutchinson's drolly appealing Bernard explains at the beginning, what we witness at his sister's house is metatheatrical and that he's going to be there as one of the characters in what he admits is "kind of a weird play." He also reassures the audience he's addressing that if his brief introduction of Passalus has them confused about what's going on "that's good."
As for Passalus, it seems that God has enabled him to assume any persona he wants during his trip back to the living. Anyone familiar with Greenspan won't be surprised that he arrives at Claire's house as Mrs. Simmons, an elderly British woman, which is a step in the right direction for his mission to help Carolyn. The real conceit of this play within the play is that his meeting with Bernard has restored Passalus's ability to feel and even read everyone's thoughts. And so, even though it means he won't get his wish for oblivion, Passalus winds up being something of a good fairy touching up the dysfunctions of everyone present. I leave it to you to guess if that includes another and more meaningful meeting for him and Bernard.
Actually synopsizing all this for you dear reader, makes it all sound like a lot of fun. Indeed the contemporary theater references among Claire and her guests are amusing But somewhere along the way the more probing exploration of the meaning of life and death that some of Greenspan's initial rants hint and the various other melancholy asides are abandoned for what is essentially a gay romance story. Doesn't God have more critical problems to run interference for?