Theater

A New Play Explores the Life of Forgotten Actress Twelvetrees

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Countless dramas pay tribute to great actors from theater and screen history, chronicling their private struggles and sometimes exploiting backstage tribulations. The theater has celebrated the lives of Edwin Booth and Judy Garland onstage. But how many plays chase the biographies of forgotten or failed performers?

Players who never found the spotlight, or whose star wattage dimmed quickly, make tougher, more elusive subjects. For one thing, less has been written about them. The dramatist fills in the knowledge gaps with projections as well as research. She must surmise and reconstruct the personalities — theater history is richly and overwhelmingly based on personalities — out of whatever artifacts remain from uncelebrated creative careers.

David Greenspan’s new play, I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees, contemplates one such historical subject, now relegated to footnotes: the Brooklyn-born actress Helen Twelvetrees (1908–1958), who moved between stage and the movies just as the invention of sound spawned talkies. But it veers far from bio-drama, freely filtering this real actor’s life through the playwright’s consciousness and imagination. Greenspan, who also portrays all the secondary characters in the show, time-travels dreamily, jumping off from his discovery (alluded to in the elliptical text) of an old snapshot. “Black-and-white photos — that’s all that’s left of the theater now — except some people’s memories,” says Mike, a young fan who, in Greenspan’s fantasy, tracks down the actress’s Long Island summer-stock home years later. I’m Looking starts from that original photo — simulating the grassy Sea Cliff lawn and Helen’s tenacious gaze — and then merges impressions and conjecture with biography. Surviving her tragic first marriage, she moves from stage to Hollywood, holding on to her grace and then finding new loves.

Wild mixes normally pay off for Greenspan, the American theater’s reigning master of irony and one of downtown’s most adventurous performers. In his monodramas, for instance, Greenspan performs all the voices and roles, offering dizzying observations and inversions of American presidential politics (The Myopia), classical aesthetics (The Argument), and of course theater itself (She Stoops to Comedy).

Here, though, Greenspan’s musings could use the exactitude of his other plays. Although the script alludes to domestic violence, xenophobia, and homophobia, Greenspan’s fascination with Helen Twelvetrees doesn’t quite rub off on us. It’s never clear what makes her such a compelling figure, or what causes men to fall at her feet, even decades later. Part of the problem might be that Brooke Bloom’s performance (as Helen) stays muted, even in her tortured arguments with Clark, the actress’s alcoholic first husband (Keith Nobbs). The three-person cast switches roles and leaps between decades, sometimes with the mere wave of a hand, making it hard to track which character’s speaking in this dense textual weave. (Leigh Silverman directs.)

Despite these obstacles, the play’s backward glance has resonance. Who came before us? How did they hang on and manage to create? In his final speech, the smitten teenager Mike eloquently embraces the uncertainties of his quest. “I wanted to think that despite all the chaos and disappointment, that in this neglected corner of time, you had done something of great beauty,” he says, speaking to Helen’s shadow. “Sometimes you make a drawing of a flower that everyone else passes by — and you don’t know exactly why.”

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