"Time means nothing in this play," a character says in David Greenspan's The Things That Were There, now making its world premiere at the Bushwick Starr in a coproduction with Abingdon Theatre Company. An iteration of this phrase is repeated several times, in case you missed it, which is an easy thing to do in this one-hour somersault down memory lane.
The play begins with five actors gathered in a semicircle around a polished wooden dining room table. "This is so nice," says Greenspan, who plays a character named Lenny. He introduces each member of Lenny's makeshift family by gesturing: "Calvin [Evander Duck, Jr.]. May [Mary Shultz]. Lenny. Mario [Cesar J. Rosado]. Sissy whose name is really Emily [Caitlin Morris]." Some are actually related, while others are "chosen family." We learn that they are gathered for Calvin's birthday party. It feels like a no-nonsense way to lay out the exposition. But then it goes on and on and on like that, with each character narrating his or her story, not necessarily in chronological order and with no regard for emotional build.
"I shouldn't have had an open casket for Dorothy. A painted corpse," Lenny bursts into tears within the first three minutes. We understand that Dorothy was Lenny's wife, but we don't know much about her other than she died in a car crash, a point muddled with a digression about an unrelated man who was hit by a car (not Dorothy's), and whose wife died of cancer. Got all that? It's OK if you didn't. I had to go back and read the script, revealing to me that what seems like no-nonsense on the page can often devolve into all-nonsense on the stage.
At its best, The Things That Were There conveys the strange logic that governs memory, the little words and actions that trigger feelings of longing and regret strong enough to knock you straight out of the present. At its worst, it looks like the result of splicing together scraps from the cutting room floor of whatever ad agency makes State Farm commercials: As Lenny reminds us how happy he is the company of others, Mario, like a good neighbor, interjects, "But death found him – as it finds us all."
Unfortunately, this play suffers from an oversaturation of significance, with huge life events flying at us in a barrage of sentiment. Every moment is very important, so nothing really is. Greenspan has performed the dramaturgical equivalent of opting not to bake a cake, because it's more fun to just eat frosting from the can. We never get the opportunity to build a relationship with any of these characters over the bready parts of life, so we're left with the cold taste of nauseating sweetness.
No doubt the actors are working very hard to conjure these instant emotional crescendos. Rosado comes the closest with a monologue delivered to Mario's invisible son about painstakingly tending a citrus tree, only to never taste its fruit. It's a blunt metaphor, but the emotion behind it feels real. Morris is less fortunate with the nearly incomprehensible "portrait of Emily" monologue, delivered in third person in a dim upstage quadrant. My only feeling was relief for the performer when it finally ended.
That may be director Lee Sunday Evans's most baffling choice in this free-flowing production. Evans seems intent on not obstructing the stream of memory in Greenspan's writing, and at that she succeeds. Carolyn Mraz's shiny laminate set gives off a domestic vibe while remaining open enough to facilitate infinite times and places. There are slight shifts in Barbara Samuels's lighting when it seems that the script is leaping from one event to the next. Still, we feel adrift in this river of memory, clinging to whatever we can as we float downstream.
I was most able to grasp the story of an offstage character named Aaron. He was Emily's brother and a theater-maker who was in talks with Joe Papp to direct Titus Andronicus, right before Aaron died of an AIDS-related illness (a biographical detail strikingly similar to that of the late master of the ridiculous, Charles Ludlam). It made me think of all the Aarons that haunt the New York theater, geniuses who had so much more to create. We'll never know what could have been; we're only left with the things that were there — and that feels completely insufficient.