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Go Back to Where You Are

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

David Greenspan and Brian Hutchison.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"This is kind of a weird play," says a 40-something man named Bernard near the beginning of Go Back to Where You Are, the new Playwrights Horizons production at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. He's right. God, an immortal demon who also happens to be an actor and a shapeshifter capable of becoming both old women and middle-aged men, the contemporary theatre business, gay culture in New York and Los Angeles, plangent asides like a Quaalude-popping Strange Interlude, and a chronology more jagged than a shattered mirror all play crucial roles. Call the play weird if you want—and you probably should—but that doesn't stop it from being sensible, funny, and legitimately moving.

All these qualities, from "weird" on down, you could rightfully associate with David Greenspan. After all, he's listed in the program as the playwright and has a history of demonstrating (such as She Stoops to Comedy, which Playwrights Horizons also produced a handful of years ago) a predilection for bending common sense in several different directions at once. But it's Bernard (Brian Hutchison) who claims to be the work's true author, and guides us through his latest inventive creation, which just happens to be the show we're already watching.

It's set at a luxurious beach house (though set designer Rachel Hauck only shows us the stylish deck adorned with mod lounge chairs), which is currently being invaded by not just Bernard but his actress sister Claire (Lisa Banes) and her son Wally (Michael Izquierdo), Claire's actress friend Charlotte (Mariann Mayberry), and Claire's director friend Tom (Stephen Bogardus) and his set designer partner Malcolm (Tim Hopper). Though the house belongs to Claire's librarian daughter, Carolyn, who's celebrating her birthday, we never see her—that's just as well, considering all the kinks this group alone is trying (and failing) to work out of their lives.

Bernard can't get traction with his plays and has never recovered from the AIDS-related death of his partner. Claire's getting older and increasingly discouraged with a stage career she feels reached its zenith two decades earlier. Charlotte has achieved even less acclaim and is more frustrated with her inability to find work in New York. Wally is finding no satisfaction in his career as a television writer because he's still mourning his dead lover. Malcolm's exhaustion with Tom's constant philandering with chorus boys has put their relationship at risk. They're all on the fast track to implosion.

Enter Passalus (Greenspan), the demon, who dates to at least the days of the Ancient Greek Dionysia (the pinnacle of his career was as "understudy to the third actor"). He makes a deal with God that, if he can procure Carolyn, then God will grant Passalus his fondest wish: to be broken apart to his component atoms, thus ending his eternal torment. The only catch: If he interferes with anyone other than Carolyn, the agreement is nullified. But the temptations, of everyone's problems and especially the quietly alluring Bernard, are hard to ignore.

Even if Passalus didn't masquerade as an ancient British actress named Mrs. Simmons, who knows a little too much about everyone, there would still be sufficient craziness to keep the work afloat. The mingling of Passalus' omnipotence with Bernard's own strange dramatic ideas let us truly probe the minds of the characters, by hearing their inner thoughts as they occur. These range from the prophetic ("There's been some erosion of the cliffs," Malcolm says; "I wonder if that means something about us?", Tom responds to himself) to the comically meta ("I bet there is no Carolyn—or at least she won't appear in the play") to profound expressions of regret, the full fabric of which slowly begins to reveal a collision of universes and existences in which no one can trust anyone else.

The bitter emptiness of their shared existence provides both Greenspan the playwright and the people he plays plenty of room to forage and feed; it's not for nothing that "Passalus" is a genus of beetle. As smartly directed by Leigh Silverman, who also played with similar notions of uncertainty in Lisa Kron's Well, the characters' interplay between themselves and Passalus, who soon is swapping between disguises as rapidly as if he were cast in a cross-dressing farce, slowly but surely reforms the play from light comedy into serious drama. The degree to which the characters are teetering, and whether they'll fall outright, become gripping issues of the moment.

Fine central performances do help: Banes wields a rich deadpan as Claire, Mayberry paints Charlotte as a frizzled bundle of stylish desperation, Hutchison adopts a folksy stolidity that makes Bernard seem like a puzzle worth cracking, and Greenspan brings to Passalus equal parts gentleness and anguish that keep his stakes skyrocketing throughout. The other three performances are less specific, all vague variations on the same "gay man finding himself" theme, but nonetheless handsomely spoken complements to a world in which words become more disposable with each passing minute. <> It's not until everyone learns their true value, especially as plotted on the finite chart of existence, that Go Back to Where You Are can end on the message of hope: about both the lives we live and the others we sacrifice to get them. The results, Greenspan asserts, for the characters or for us, are not always happy. But we're reminded that "even when there is pathos, there is not always tragedy." By the time the play reaches its conclusion, and we finally understand the depth of difference between the two that has been simmering all evening in words both stated and silent, this formerly weird play has instead become a wise and winning one.

Go Back to Where You Are
Through May 1
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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