“If anyone is going to upstage me,” cries David Greenspan, his arm held high and his chin tilted up in Katharine Cornell grandeur, “I’ll be the one to do it.” And you’ve got to hand it to Greenspan. Watching him perform his latest solo work, The Myopia, produced by the Foundry Theatre for a hit-and-run weekend in the Ice Factory ’03 festival, you have to concede, first, that nobody else could possibly upstage an artist so at ease with his own flamboyance, and, second, that he has enough spare selves to steal attention from himself 20 times over.
A set of dramatic Chinese boxes nested inside a purely rhetorical frame, The Myopia is at once less and more than any other show in town. Looked at one way, it’s merely a guy (Greenspan) in street clothes, lounging in an armchair on a bare stage, spouting language at top speed, interrupted only by an occasional swig from the water bottle at his feet. That’s the outside. But the minute you accept anything Greenspan’s saying, you’ve opened the Chinese box and you’re inside, trapped in a succession of shape-shifting, interlocking narratives, zany and outrageous, that encompass family drama, historical pageant, Broadway musical, Expressionist nightmare, and a set of disquisitions on the act of writing and the art of the stage that amount to a major new edition of Aristotle. The verve and resilience of Greenspan’s performance, meantime, are so appealing that you may not even notice how essentially bleak his material is; The Myopia is a tragedy that could send you home thinking you’ve been on an amusement-park ride. (It’s likely to reopen when the Foundry finds a suitable home for it.)
The story that Greenspan variously narrates, enacts, rejects, and bickers with tells of a young writer named Bradley (surrealistically described as having become an illuminated globe), who is fending off his hypercritical alter ego while he alternately tries to write a play about the miserable marriage of his father and mother, and complete his father’s unfinished musical about the sorry life of Warren G. Harding, the most corrupt of our pre-Dubya Republican presidents. The Harding scenes are a set of sardonic, stagy cartoons that climaxes, at the end of the 100-minute show’s first half, with Greenspan’s one-man rendering of the notorious smoke-filled room at the 1920 Chicago convention where Harding’s nomination was arrived at. He voices 14 roles in this staggering scene, and by the time he’s through you’re stifling from the smoke, though not a cigar has been lit except in descriptive narration.
The sourball comedy of Harding, the unqualified but electable putz whose crony-poisoned tenure proved his downfall, alternates with the loonier-tuned scenes that chart the courtship and wedded nonbliss of Bradley’s parents, Febus and Koreen. These are carried on in a tone that mixes marital slapstick with mythology and sheer Freudian frenzy. Koreen is first a raucous Jewish Rapunzel, rescued by the nearsighted Febus from imprisonment in a tower where she’s kept by her monster-mother, Yetti. Next she’s a giant hand crashing through the door of the bathroom where Febus, like the hero of Greenspan’s Home Show Pieces, holes up to work on his musical, as well as to whisper sweet nothings to his unseen and unheard mistress over the princess phone—till the fatal day when Koreen picks up the extension and all hell breaks loose.
There’s a beautifully modulated insanity to these family scenes, in which the imagery is all extreme exaggeration and the dialogue all everyday naturalistic exchanges about buying coffee and looking for a new house. The constant shower of double meanings (“I heard the toilet flush. Did you finish your play?”) takes us deeper into the emotional core of the story and at the same time pushes us away, always asking us to remember that we’re hearing a play recited, that we’ve been invited to question what makes theater and how it functions; the dynamic we experience is exactly that of the author-within-an-author’s tormented home life, where everyone’s constantly pleading for affection and yet pushing others away. It’s no accident that Febus envisions the second-act ballet of his hypothetical musical, in which Harding’s messy love life is shown as the same thing on a grand tabloid scale, while staring in the bathroom mirror.
Mirrors break, of course; illuminated globes shatter. The great plays people fantasize in their bathrooms often don’t get completed, and if they did would be too long and unwieldy for any theater to desire them. Americans’ love of the inadequate, their desire to be well-liked at any price rather than respected, breeds anger and violence in reaction. The truism about there being no second acts in American life is taken literally here, when Greenspan sweeps away the second parts of both Harding’s life and the domestic strife of Bradley’s parents, in favor of a dialogue between his narrational self and his doppelgänger, “who bears a striking resemblance to the actress Carol Channing”—a Channing, however, who’s well up on literary theory. Their hilarious discussion, telescoping the drama’s middle (“we just cut three hours off the show”), allows Greenspan to reach its mournful finish without even showing signs of vocal strain. Shortsighted as we may all be about our own lives and our part in the world we inhabit, The Myopia is good homeopathic medicine, a set of symptoms distilled into a curative.