As New Like It

He Stoops to Conquer

OK, let's see if we can unpile these layers. In Shakespeare's time, men played women's roles. So in this contemporary summer-stock production of As You Like It, the woman playing the male lead is scheming to win back her ex-lover, who's playing a female role. Reasonable enough. But this is a play within a play, so the woman playing a man is played by a man, while the man playing a woman is played by a woman. Which can only mean that David Greenspan is writing plays again. In the new one, She Stoops to Comedy, the role confusions will undoubtedly once again be stacked as high as an elephant's eye, launching flights of intellect in every imaginable direction.

With the exception of a one-act (directed by someone else) in last year's Fringe Festival, it's been nearly a decade since Greenspan, once the scriptorial delight of venues like HERE and the Public Theater, had a new play presented in New York. After he knocked audiences for a loop with the freewheeling outrageousness of works like The Home Show Pieces, 2 Samuel II, Dog in a Dancing School, and Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain, the largely unconstructive criticism of his deconstructive romps inevitably began to tell on him. While sustaining his literary impulse through readings and workshops (She Stoops to Comedy has had two of the former and one of the latter), he concentrated on his acting, becoming a touchstone of downtown authenticity in productions ranging from the WPA revival of Boys in the Band (in which his eerie, gliding performance as Harold was the hit of the evening) to Broadway's Hairspray (in which he served for a time in the appropriately gender-confused post of understudy to both halves of the married couple played by Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa).

Greenspan's gift for extravagant mental leaps has often crunched together in his scripts the most improbably disparate cultural elements: Few other playwrights have produced, as he did in The Dead Mother, a work that draws on both Charley's Aunt and Dante's Inferno. (The inferno the hero traveled through in Greenspan's version, however, was the hellish underworld of closeted gays in late-'50s L.A.; the spirit guiding him through it, in lieu of the poet Virgil, was the ghost of Alice B. Toklas.) At the same time, few dramatists have had the sardonic, clear-eyed audacity to depict themselves sitting on the john, fantasizing about becoming famous, mutating into Streisand singing "People"—and finding, when they finish, that the toilet has clogged. (This vignette, from The Home Show Pieces, also featured the memorable throwaway line "This is my husband, David Mamet.")

See my show, seats still available: playwright David Greenspan.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
See my show, seats still available: playwright David Greenspan.

What Greenspan may do, in She Stoops to Comedy, with the opportunities provided by As You Like It is anybody's guess. The one sure bet is that conventional backstage comedy, even conventional gender-illusion comedy, will only be a secondary item on his rich theatrical menu. Shakespeare's play, don't forget, deals with exile and totalitarianism as well as with love and sexual identity. The author-director himself will play the actress who plays Shakespeare's male lead, Orlando, with Marissa Copeland appearing opposite him as the actor playing Rosalind, As You Like It's female lead—who, if you remember your college Shakespeare course, has to disguise herself as a boy while wooing Orlando. Also on hand for the onstage and backstage high jinks will be Mia Barron, Jeremy Shamos, and T. Ryder Smith, who knows all about delusions of gender from his appearance a few seasons back in the downtown revival of Mae West's Sex.

To make the comeback a double one, the piece will be the first full production in Playwrights Horizons' newly renovated intimate upstairs space, now renamed the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Given Greenspan's propensity for testing the edge of the art form, She Stoops to Comedy may make it a sharp theater indeed.

April 3-27, Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, 212-279-4200

Comments by Brian Parks:

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