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.
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.
I’m nervous about making any evening in the theater sound perfect; high expectations are so easily let down. In Greenspan’s place, I might snip one or two lines, in the few places where he pushes a scene slightly beyond its natural span. I might tone down a few points where the one performer whom the director can’t see goes slightly over the mark. But that’s all. Small, breezy, and near perfect, She Stoops to Comedy is a very big event, tickling up, in its cameo-carved wit, large ideas about love, truth, art, reality, and other matters that concern everyone. You go to the theater, you experience delight instead of agony, you come home exhilarated, and when you wake up the next day, you have an enhanced awareness of life as well as a pleasant memory. I believe this is how the process of theatergoing is meant to work. And I believe that David Greenspan is not the only artist in New York who can make it do so. Why the others don’t is the part I haven’t figured out yet.
At least I know what hinders the delight in Erica Schmidt’s Public Theater production of As You Like It, a heavily cut version that employs a cast of only six on a bare stage—rather recalling the five-actor version that Greenspan’s characters patch together. Schmidt has at least partially grasped the same basic good idea: that simplicity, directness, and a minimum of apparatus are what the theater needs right now. And even though she lets her good idea go wrong, it still looks and feels better than a bad idea gone wrong, which is the usual practice in New York these days. Unhappily, she’s one of the countless victims of the theatrical ailment known in its most virulent form as Saxe-Meiningen Syndrome, or Kazan’s Tic, which results from there having been, at times, directors who actually had creative sensibilities. Pollen from these having rubbed off on people of no particular ability or intellect, the latter developed a bloated sense of self-importance that broke out into what is called directorial concept—a show-business term meaning “a bad idea.” The painful result is that now almost no one can direct a play without imposing some irrelevantly perverse notion on it, and then calling attention to the notion all evening long.
The oddity of Schmidt’s less virulent case is that half of her “concept” simply consists of the straightforward, bare-stage format, perfectly suited to the common sense inherent in Shakespeare’s work. The other half, regrettably, consists of calling attention to the reductions, to their execution, and to the fact that the play is supposed to be funny. In lieu of something like Greenspan’s simple clothes and straight-on staging, Schmidt offers cutesy-poo costumes, endless gratuitous running around, archly “comic” voices, and an almost unerring ability to miss the point of any line or speech in one of the most familiar plays in the classic repertoire.
Despite these irritations, and the general callowness of the cast, the evening is by no means one of the more painful you can currently spend in a theater. The performance is short and brisk; the Rosalind and Orlando, Bryce Dallas Howard and Lorenzo Pisoni, are attractive and not too ill-spoken; and Pisoni’s circus-gymnast training means that you get some spectacular back flips mixed in with the poetry. Even the repetitive hat-switching business with which Schmidt persistently reminds you that her actors are playing multiple roles is sometimes neatly choreographed. It could be worse. But the true Shakespearean note—more matter with less art—is struck in Greenspan’s non-Shakespearean text.