The Patsy: Visionary David Greenspan Reanimates a 1920s Antique


The Patsy (the Duke on 42nd Street) is one of the most remarkable, and one of the most peculiar, theater events I’ve ever witnessed. Precedents exist for it: The 1927 musical Show Boat, in its complete form, actually contains two segments in which something of the kind occurs. But these and similar virtuosic stunts were only meant to divert audiences for a few minutes. The Patsy is, quite literally, something else: a complete, 70-minute performance, by one actor, of a multi-character three-act play, in compressed form, more for the purpose of conveying the play’s substance than to show off the actor’s skill.

Naturally, the skill is also to the point. An actor lacking the virtuoso flamboyance to make the audience “see” all the characters wouldn’t convey the play’s substance. A visionary element, akin to surrealism, is also involved. The event amounts to a questioning of the elements of theater: To transmit the essence of a traditional play, how much of anything do you really need? How many actors, how much scenery and lighting, how many physical exits and entrances? King Lear thought he needed a hundred knights to affirm his kingship; his harsh but practical daughter asked him, “What need one?”

One valiant knight, apparently, is all you need in the theater. At least that’s so in David Greenspan’s theater, where the seed of it all, the artist’s imagination, is often the focal element. The Patsy, though, didn’t germinate in Greenspan’s mind: It began life as a standard-issue 1925 Broadway comedy, by one Barry Conners, and is best known as a 1928 silent film starring Marie Dressler and Marion Davies. Greenspan created the current condensation, for Transport Group, in partnership with its artistic director, Jack Cummings III, and his dramaturg, Kristina Corcoran Williams.

Conners’s play, inventively reworking familiar materials, follows one of the period’s standard matrices for family comedy: the worm-turns pattern. An overworked traveling salesman spends endless days on the road, neglecting his family, so that his social-climbing wife and elder daughter can mix with the upper crust. In his absence, the two snobby women bully and exploit younger daughter Patricia, a/k/a Patsy. Poor Patsy pines for her elder sister’s lovelorn, hardworking suitor, whom sister Grace snubs in favor of a rich playboy. But once father starts asserting himself, and Patsy sets her brain to work, the snobs get their comeuppance and she gets her man.

Molière this isn’t, but Conners came up with amusing lines and some neat surprise twists; to see his script acted by a full cast might well be fun. It wouldn’t, however, tap into the jaw-dropping amazement evoked when Greenspan acts the entire script himself, key stage directions included. On a set that’s literally a box, minus front wall and ceiling, center stage, decorated with a few chairs and vaguely period wallpaper, he speeds through it, nonstop, from the opening doorbell to the final-curtain embrace, playing father, mother, both daughters, both boyfriends, plus an intrusive vamp (the other woman in the playboy’s life) who barges into the house to smoke rather than shock the elderly spinsters on neighboring porches.

A performer with an appealingly distinctive—but also distinctively mannered—style, Greenspan gives what’s less a technical tour de force than a kind of welcoming megalomaniac delusion. It’s every actor’s secret dream to play all the roles; what matters, apparently, is not how hungry your ego is but how humbly you offer it. Greenspan asserts no haughty artistic claims: He merely delights in playing all the roles and invites us to share his delight. What did the British critic C.E. Montague say a hundred years ago? “To get to heaven in the theater, you must become as a little child again—so long as you do it without thinking what an adorable child you are.” Greenspan, no child and nobody’s fool, never strains for adorability. His love for the material flows out so tangibly he had me quite convinced, at the end, that he would vanish up the set’s nonexistent staircase instead of stepping out of the box to take his bow. And he reaffirms his non-foolishness, after intermission, with a briefer piece of his own, Jonas, which builds, acutely and complexly, on a very different 1920s comedy.