You can’t, of course, go back to where you are, the title of David Greenspan’s new play notwithstanding; you can only realize that you’re there. But the title of Go Back to Where You Are (Playwrights Horizons) is just one of the how’s-that-again snares that Greenspan sets in this slender but thickly layered romantic caprice. He pulls so many ideas, allusions, and metaphysical realms into its fleeting 75 minutes that you may get a little dizzy watching them zip by, as when you watch a magician pull that endless string of rainbow silks out of a hat. Certainly, you already know the trick, but—hey, wasn’t that hat empty a minute ago?
The very old hat from which Greenspan extracts his multicolored surprises is Chekhov’s The Seagull, but if you mistake that for the bottom of the device, you’re likely to be very startled by what emerges from underneath: Aristophanes’ Frogs, Our Town, the Book of Job, Strange Interlude, even Charley’s Aunt. Plus the aesthetic premises, philosophic purpose, and what you might call the social pathology of theater itself.
Because this is Greenspan, nothing is overexplained and nothing is lectured at you—this is the artist whose solo piece, The Argument, turned an analysis of Aristotle’s Poetics into 45 minutes of sheer delight. The people, in Leigh Silverman’s smoothly unobtrusive but subtle staging, stand or move casually; it’s the ideas and emotions that keep up a constant, giddy dance. Listen sharply, and every point becomes clear, its clarification much abetted by Matt Frey’s lighting, almost tactile in its readiness to follow the characters’ careening trains of thought.
Like The Seagull, Go Back to Where You Are centers on a star actress, Claire (Lisa Banes), whose constant need for attention tends to reduce everyone around her to subservience. Her half-reluctant retinue includes her offspring, Wally (Michael Izquierdo) and Carolyn (unseen); her pet director, Tom (Stephen Bogardus); his set designer and life partner, Malcolm (Tim Hopper); and her less-successful Juilliard classmate, Charlotte (Mariann Mayberry). While Claire prepares for a revival of (what else?) The Seagull, under Tom’s direction, the group gathers at her lavish beach house on Long Island’s East End, not far from the considerably more modest summer cottage of her childhood, now occupied year-round by her brother, Bernard (Brian Hutchison), a quirky, under-produced playwright whose teaching has inspired a wave of young commercial hotshots.
That, by itself, would be material sufficient for a full-evening Broadway comedy, ripe with potential for emotional clashes, its teasing self-awareness adding a touch of intellectual chic to the atmosphere of theatrical backbiting, and its high-diva central role offering numerous moments of display, comic and tragic, all of which Banes seizes with precise, elegant assurance. But Greenspan packs in more: This tiny, quick-witted play, in which the male characters mostly prefer other males, supplies divas of both genders.
Enter the playwright—by which I don’t mean Bernard, although the script toys, glancingly, with the notion that what we’re watching is his latest work-in-progress. Nor do I mean Greenspan, though he is indeed both the author of all we see and the diva whose arrival steals Claire’s focus. I mean God (Hopper again), specifically the “God of Israel,” who, in a theological muddle suitable for our secularized time, visits an ancient Greek actor, Passalus (Greenspan), inexplicably consigned to eternal torment in our monotheistic hell. God desires to rescue Carolyn from her mother’s domineering love, and sends the reluctant Passalus back to Earth for the purpose, granting him the ability to shape-shift as needed.
So Passalus, trailing clouds of ancient Greek theater memories (which sound hilariously like modern Anglo-American theatrical memories), turns up on Claire’s deck as Mrs. Simmons, a British former actress who now runs the shoreline community’s library and encourages Carolyn’s independence. But, in a slip brought on by his own febrile emotions, he also befriends Bernard as himself, a newly arrived Greek who was an actor “quite a long time ago.” Both Passalus and Donna Lucia—sorry, I mean Mrs. Simmons—get invited to Claire’s barbecue, causing some inconvenience even to an otherworldly shape-shifter. The upshots—happy, sad, disturbing—offer questions worth pondering about both the theater and the cosmos, plus even a melodramatic surprise or two. Seventy-five dense-packed, poetic minutes.