Gender Is the Night

Like It or Not, It's Theater, Pure and Simple

The dark and ugly tunnel that the theater's been crawling through since modernism died still encloses us, but the bright lights that signal its end are distinctly starting to appear. The brightest such signal to date is David Greenspan's She Stoops to Comedy, 80 minutes of near total delight, which inaugurates Playwrights Horizons' new upstairs space, the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. With its gleaming new hardwood floor, the space feels airy and comfortable, partly because the bare simplicity of Greenspan's aesthetic opens it to full view. This is a sex comedy, and the set is a large double bed, which looks comfy and stylish in its splendid isolation. There is a chair off in one downstage corner; when the actors enter upstage, you see the glare of dressing-room fluorescents. The costumes are unassuming contemporary clothes.

And the enchanting result of this utter abnegation of illusion is—illusion. Illusion piled on illusion, illusion outrageously toyed with, illusion stretched and twisted and ripped apart and taped back together till the concept of illusion—or of reality—becomes a laugh in itself. And that, I would say, is the theater. Sweeping away everything but the mind of the playwright and the ability of the actors, Greenspan creates a fiction that has the pleasure and pain of life, plus the extravagant possibilities of the imagination. He does it without apparatus, attitude, amplification, willed ugliness, or any of the other tortures that make most of our theater such misery to sit through. It's just theater, pure and simple. What a relief.

The visible simplicity of She Stoops to Comedy is only a way of clearing space for the emotional complexity of the illusion Greenspan invites you to create. Alexandra, a lesbian thespian famous for playing tragic roles in "concept" productions (you remember her Phaedra in a space suit), is having a bumpy time with her lover Alison, a musical-comedy gal about to try something new ("How often can you be a cock-eyed optimist in Pittsburgh?"). A young indie film director is trying his hand at As You Like It up in Maine, and Alison has been cast as Rosalind. The production's Orlando has just been lost to Hollywood; in a reckless, lovelorn moment, Alexandra disguises herself as a man ("Harry Samson," if you please), auditions for the role, and gets it. Among the extra complications she finds in Maine are another lesbian couple gone splitsville, a troubled hetero relationship between the director and his assistant, and Simon Languish, the melancholy gay actor to whose Brick Alexandra once played Maggie.

Smith, Kerr, Copeland, and Greenspan in She Stoops to Comedy: once upon a mattress
photo: Joan Marcus
Smith, Kerr, Copeland, and Greenspan in She Stoops to Comedy: once upon a mattress

Details

She Stoops to Comedy
By David Greenspan
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
212-279-4200

As You Like It
By William Shakespeare
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-239-6200

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The elegantly conveyed chaos that results is too delicious for me to spoil by describing either what happens or the droll way Greenspan makes it unfold out of itself, labeling all the component parts as they appear; the script is its own running commentary, replete with alternate drafts. (He even identifies the old European play it's modeled on.) I'll give two hints of joys to come: The second lesbian couple, lighting designer Kay Fein and actress Jayne Summerhouse, are played by the same actress. ("I hope we don't have a scene," Kay says, on learning of Jayne's presence. "That would be impossible.") And Simon, having gotten drunk at a post-rehearsal dinner, delivers an inebriate monologue, while Alison and "Harry" help him stagger home, that sums up, hilariously, not only his own life but all the constraints that post-Stonewall gay subculture and its theatrical stereotypes put on male homosexual life. ("I think we've been over this ground before," says Alison, as they pick their tentative way through the Maine woods.)

T. Ryder Smith and E. Katharine Kerr, who play Simon and the dual role of Kay/Jayne respectively, demonstrate Greenspan's sensible, unfussy skill at casting and directing, an outgrowth of his artistic generosity of spirit. Not every playwright-director would be willing to leave the spotlight to actors with such a gift for catching and gripping an audience's attention. Happy to take stage when the play demands it, Greenspan seems equally content to be an offstage "feed" or part of an upstage chorus while Kerr and Smith, old hands at tricky material like this, dive zestfully into the meaty scenes he's written for them. "That's what life is," one of Kerr's characters says. "Scenes. One after the other." Applying equally to stage and audience, the line's a microcosm of the writing's lighthearted bravura, always offering you more than its surface suggests.

While hardly touching the text of As You Like It (of which it quotes a grand total of two and a half lines), She Stoops is full of puckish thematic and structural parallels: not an update or rewrite of Shakespeare's comedy but a contemporary work fit to stand next to it. Alison and Alex, its Rosalind and Orlando, are flanked on one side by Kay and Jayne, a no-nonsense Silvius and a less captious Phebe, and on the other by the heterosexual couple of Hal and his assistant Eve, a Touchstone-Audrey coupling in which the dynamics are subtler, and the interaction a good deal knottier, than in Shakespeare's farce of the court jester and his shepherd lass. Greenspan lets Philip Tabor and Mia Barron play these scenes in a gentle, pale-colored style that forges a disconcerting link between our laid-back film world and the serenity of pastoral poetry. Between the gentle and the brawling couples, in the slow steps back to love of Alison and Alex (a reverse mirror-image of Rosalind wooing Orlando), Marissa Copeland, graceful and heartfelt, makes a charmingly probable match for Greenspan's charmingly improbable female.

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