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David Greenspan in She Stoops to Comedy
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
She Stoops to Comedy is a delightful new farce written and directed by David Greenspan, in which he also stars. The play actually has little to do with She Stoops to Conquer, the delightful old farce by Oliver Goldsmith, which first appeared in London in 1773. It has stronger parallels to its acknowledged forerunner: The Guardsman, by Ferenc Molnar, Hungary's foremost playwright and an influence on such major figures as Pirandello. But Greenspan's triple-threat approach to playmaking also recalls the work of Charles Ludlam, whose Irma Vep is referenced prominently here.

The play is marked by fast-paced, articulate, poetic, and rhythmic text, delivered by a cast in perfect tune with the style. Repetition figures strongly in the writing, as does gentle rhyme, which tickles the ear at various moments. But the essence of this work is Greenspan's love of gender-farce in all its forms, mixed with a palpable (and increasingly rare) respect and affection for the audience, which the author treats as a collaborator.

Greenspan's elated theatrical gender games were given a mixed reception when offered a decade ago at The Public Theater under Joseph Papp and George C. Wolfe. Now, they make for a cocktail frothy enough to allow "the permissiveness of theatrical artifice" -- as a line in Comedy goes -- to take over entirely. The play succeeds most when it is appreciating life as theater and pointing out that the roles of life don't always fit the individuals who play them. Indeed, the piece is sometimes too in love with artifice to slow down and fully engage reality; when it does so, its devices stretch and strain. Yet the play as a whole is riveting for its insistence on the profundity, the reality of the artificial.

At issue here is a regional theater staging of As You Like It in Maine. Greenspan plays Alexandra Page, a lesbian actress who has decided to impersonate a man in order to be cast as Orlando in the production. He plays the role with no makeup and costumed as a man called Harry Samson. Also starring in As You Like It is Page's ex-lover Alison Rose, played by Marissa Copeland. Their meeting is a magic moment in which -- as the play itself notes in quoting a review of its own source, The Guardsman -- a twinkle is present in Copeland's eye but "you're never quite sure what's behind that twinkle."

The play's director Hal Stewart, played by Philip Tabor, is a film guy who's never done theater before and who gets stuck on the first query about the text that is raised by an actor. Hal's assistant and girlfriend Eve Addaman, played by Mia Barron, struggles for a chance to apply her own directorial talent to the proceedings and to make her relationship with Hal workable. (Theirs is the token heterosexual romance here but its unfolding is the most tender and involving of them all.) Alexandra's friend Kay Fein, a lighting designer, advises her on her problems and contends with her own relationship with Jayne Summerhouse. As both Kay and Jayne, E. Katherine Kerr is a pleasure to watch; she pulls off with remarkable skill a scene in which the two characters argue, though Greenspan's writing and direction might have served her better here.

Marissa Copeland, T. Ryder Smith, and David Greenspan
in She Stoops to Comedy
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
The most bravura acting in She Stoops to Comedy is done by Greenspan, whose slinky movements and high, silky voice weave a spell that remains unbroken throughout. There is some chicanery with cell phones when Alison thinks she's calling Alexandra and Greenspan as Samson has to jump up and juggle things a bit, but it reminds us of the fondness and care that this writer-director-actor has lavished on the conventions of gender farces, from the works of the Bard to Some Like It Hot.

One wishes that there were more gut-level revelations in the piece; we learn of only one character's dissatisfaction in a genuinely arresting sequence featuring T. Ryder Smith as Simon Lanquish, the desperate, gay actor whose loneliness is expressed in a monologue that's well delivered but tonally out of place with the rest of the material. When Greenspan tries to put too much reality onstage, he loses his grip on his devices -- and when he is indulging in his devices, reality is at arm's length in a way that pleases but does not always involve us.

Nonetheless, kudos to Playwrights Horizons for giving Greenspan another platform for his creations. At a time when commercially motivated projects lead to decisions by committee posing as theater, individual visions based on a true love of the stage are refreshing. Any disciple of theatrical illusion as loving as is David Greenspan should be treasured.


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