NEW YORK CITY: For aficionados, finding out that David Greenspan has a new piece on the boil is like learning that David Bowie is about to release a new album. The playwright/performer is a touchstone in New York’s downtown theatre scene who has won five Obie awards and regularly turns out mischievous, mysterious plays that inspire everybody else. (Tony Kushner once called him “all-round the most talented theatre artist of my generation.”) Greenspan plays are frankly gorgeous; they sound like Tennessee Williams startled from a deep sleep, like modernist poetry reaching for psychological truth.
Greenspan’s 25th play, I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees, runs March 19–April 4 at the Abrons Arts Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Will it be a baroque puzzle, like his tour-de-force weird-o-rama The Myopia? A gender-fluid memory play, like Dead Mother? Or a quasi-mystic examination of the actor’s life, like Go Back to Where You Are? The answer is yes. Yes to all three.
Greenspan wrote I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees after falling into a fascination with a real film actress with that evocative name. He became particularly fixated on a few existing photos of her, and he grew curious about her unhappy life and her first husband Clark, about whom little is known but from whom she got her distinctive surname. The play’s imagined details stand on these shifting sands.
“I’m interested in the lives that may pass away unnoticed,” Greenspan says of the luminous but thoroughly forgotten early-talkie star, who was born in Brooklyn as Helen Marie Jurgens. “For me, the theatre is a way of viewing the world. The ephemeral nature of life can be revealed as you contemplate the nature of the stage performance.”
As one Greenspan character says: “The moment of memory is enough.” These memories are necessarily complicated and fragmentary, as events from Helen and Clark’s lives seem to happen simultaneously or in loops—death preceding divorce preceding marriage. Brooke Bloom plays Helen; Keith Nobbs plays Clark; Greenspan plays everyone else, including the pair’s other spouses and even Max the Dog.
In his own works and elsewhere, Greenspan’s performances have had a sidewinding, snaky grace; here again he’ll be trading identities (and even sex) within a single paragraph. Trying to explain his interest in this fluid approach to performance, he sings a snatch of song. “Our moment is swift / Like ships adrift,” he croons, a line from “Speak Low” in One Touch of Venus. It’s true, and so you must catch him before he’s gone.