David Greenspan in The Patsy
(© Carol Rosegg)
David Greenspan in The Patsy
(© Carol Rosegg)
With The Patsy and Jonas, two solo works that the Transport Group is offering at the Duke on 42nd Street, David Greenspan, as both writer and performer, delivers a terrific master class in the art of bringing characters from a bygone era to life on stage.

The two very different pieces share a rather simple commonality in that they both whisk audiences back to the late 1920s. Yet, even in their period constraints, they are provocatively modern.

The Patsy is an adaptation, by Greenspan, director Jack Cummings III, and Kristina Corcoran Williams, of Barry Conners' once-popular 1929 comedy about the decidedly middle class Harrington family and the romantic woes of its youngest member, daughter Patricia. Specifically, the show centers on the ways in which she woos the young man she loves, and in the process, proves herself to be stronger and wiser than her parents or elder sister might ever have imagined.

On some levels, the work's three acts play like a trio of interrelated sitcom episodes. While watching Greenspan's vivid turns as all seven characters -- he plays the Harringtons as well as their visitors -- it is difficult to not think about some classic television shows. For example, The Honeymooners certainly comes to mind whenever the actor transforms himself into the garrulous Harrington patriarch, seemingly taking on Jackie Gleason's girth and bellow. And when Patricia squabbles with elder sister Grace, the characters seem to be jazz-era variations on Marcia and Jan Brady.

What impresses most as Greenspan whisks through the dialogue -- sometimes playing four characters at once, and switching between them with lightning-like rapidity -- is the truth and specificity that he brings to each. Early on, when the family's matriarch bemoans the fact that her husband won't buy the family a car, tears well up in Greenspan's eyes, making this woman's distress uncomfortably real. Similarly, the love scenes between Patricia and Tony, the boy Grace has jilted and whom Greenspan imbues with an adorable clueless self-assurance, brim with romance and genuine innocence.

For anyone who wonders how Greenspan can create such indelible portraits onstage, the monologue Jonas provides some answers. The lyrical piece, just over 30 minutes, is a meditation on the backstory that he created for the role the butler Jo in last season's Broadway revival of The Royal Family.

As Jonas unfolds, theatergoers learn not only of the aspirations that Greenspan created for the man who so steadfastly serves the Cavendish clan, but also a fully realized private life, one that involves the subterranean gay culture of New York in the 1920s. Eventually, Greenspan's imaginings and the realities of harnessing them while waiting offstage during the run of the play collide with Jo's own daydreams, creating a verbal and mental hall of mirrors that not only tantalizes, but proves to be suprisingly moving.

Both pieces unfold within a doorless cube -- Greenspan actually has to hop up onto the stage -- that is outfitted with a few pieces of period furniture (scenic design by Dane Laffrey). It's a marvelous way of not only underscoring the unique theatricality of the shows, but also showcasing the performers' exceptional work in a terrifically simple jewel box-like setting.