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The Patsy & Jonas

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

David Greenspan.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

What theatre has always possessed—and what continues to distinguish it from film, television, and so many other art forms—is a rigorous devotion to imagination. For centuries, theatrical technology and ingenuity have been advanced enough to create almost any wonder on a stage, but few of those spectacles have compared to those generated in our heads. Perhaps the biggest and most commercial venues have forgotten this lesson (Lincoln Center Theater's current production of War Horse being a happy exception), but it's alive and well Off-Broadway at The Duke, where David Greenspan and Transport Group are deploying it in excitingly abundant quantities.

In the two shows on his double bill, The Patsy and Jonas, both of which have been directed by Jack Cummings III (and on some nights are performed together), Greenspan explores different corners of his mind to create people, places, and situations specific enough to make you wonder if you're watching a cast of thousands. Each work—the former written by Barry Conners and seen on Broadway in the 1925-26 season, the latter Greenspan's own writing—becomes about questions of mistaken identity, and their impact on the lives we live and the lives we want to live. And through the magic of Greenspan's unique style, and intense focus, never once does a layer of meta creep in and allow us to get confused about whom we're watching.

The range of Greenspan's abilities is on much more rigorous display in The Patsy. This largely innocuous boulevard comedy tells a solid, but rather unremarkable, story about the working-class Harrington family, primarily from the perspective of its two daughters, Grace and Patricia, who are both of marrying age but not necessarily profitable inclinations. Patricia is in love with Tony Anderson, who in turn is in love with Grace, but Grace only has eyes for Billy Caldwell. However will all this get straightened out, preferably in a way that will prevent Mrs. Harrington from ever again having to ride the (streetcar) "like a common washerwoman"? Essentially, the answer is: "Who cares?" By the time Tony gives Patricia "love lessons" to help her win him, and Grace is scheming to steal her sister's man in between bouts of barking at a hapless telephone operator, it's clear that the last 86 years of dramatic evolution have not been especially kind to Conners's formulaic charmer.

In embodying the entire seven-person cast, however, along with occasional narration—including reading the full list of dramatist personae, and setting the scene at the beginning of each of the three acts—Greenspan makes it into something far more substantial. He highlights the similarities between the daughters and their beaus, showing how they're all very much cut from the same cloth, and draws the lines of authority within the family with astonishing precision. He elicits surprising pathos from the plight of Mrs. Harrington and the seeming indifference of her grocer husband, who's quite content with the status quo. The smarmy Billy and the doltish but endearing Tony don't move or sound the same; neither do the innocent, dowdy Patricia and the pert yet calculating Grace.

That Greenspan does all this without sacrificing the play's dramatic integrity is what makes his effort more than a mere recitation-based parlor trick. Cummings's staging, on a compressed picture-box living-room set by Dane Laffrey (so intimate that Greenspan must hop into it from the audience), keeps the actor traipsing from door to door to staircase without any arid space to taint his illusions. But it's the character work that matters most. You become so engrossed in the Harringtons' achievements and missteps, and so drawn along by the shape of the evening, that each of the two act breaks insists upon your applause—even though Greenspan never begs for it. You're as invested in the plot as if it were being acted out by a full company in front of you; perhaps even more, because of how ingratiating and addicting the personalities Greenspan has created for them are. Greenspan, Cummings, and Kristina Corcoran Williams have abridged the script somewhat, which is a shame, but if the result is a revival this delightful, who minds a few cuts?

The other play is more a return to form for Greenspan than a fresh invention. Like many of his previous works (including last season's Go Back to Where You Are) Jonas is consumed with the question "Who?", stacking and inverting it so many times that by the end it seems to be the very framework of the universe. But because this is framed within the actor's psyche, with Greenspan recalling a role he played by having that character envision yet another person who propelled him, it's less immediately captivating. Spending its full 45 minutes seated, charting each of the men only with hand gestures and mild changes in voice, Greenspan spins a curious tale of a 1927 man fighting against the social mores (particularly regarding homosexuality of his era) and surviving until 2010 to recall the era of his then-lover and the decades of history and change that now separate them.

Intriguing as Greenspan's internal machinations are, especially in fleshing out a role as relatively insignificant as the butler in The Royal Family (named, of course, Jo), they result in few insights that ignite outside of an acting class. When Greenspan is truly on point, the indiscriminate shuffling back and forth of thoughts and feelings says something vital about the external impulses that spawned it. If you're not familiar with the mechanics of performing, Jonas may give you a marginally better grasp of them, but it won't impart a more balanced understanding of human nature. That, at least in this pair of offerings, is The Patsy's job.

What you will take away from both shows is the notion that concepts of who you are and what your purpose is are often far more malleable than they might at first seem. Determining the outcome isn't always possible, but if you put yourself in the right hands, the right things will happen. Greenspan is fine enough in Jonas with merely two hands to guide you, but The Patsy—in which he has a full 14—is one of the safest and most irresistible experiences you're likely to have in a theater all year.

The Patsy & Jonas
Through August 13
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Duke On 42nd Street

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