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David Greenspan, Two Shows, and Eleven Characters

The actor-writer launches “The Patsy” and “Jonas”

With his gray temples, strong features, and sunken eyes, David Greenspan could almost pass for Mitt Romney’s bantamweight cousin. And if you think Romney has developed a reputation for flip-flopping, you haven’t seen Greenspan take on The Patsy.

This 1925 stage comedy by Barry Conners may be best known (or at least better known) for the subsequent silent film version, which starred Marion Davies and Marie Dressler. But Greenspan’s appreciative and virtuosic one-man version of the show, now in previews at the Duke on 42nd Street courtesy of the Transport Group, manages to both clear away and bask in its cobwebs. Conners’ script follows the romantic travails, alternately comic and poignant, of two sisters, one of whom has spent her life in the other’s shadow. Greenspan plays them both.

In fact, with a minimum of character-defining body language and vocal filigrees, the five-time Obie Award winner plays the two women, their parents, two of their suitors, and a pair of other characters. Whether they’re feuding at the top and bottom of the stairs or tentatively reaching out to hold hands, Greenspan makes it absolutely clear who’s who and why we should care.

Only one, extremely minor, additional suitor didn’t survive the cuts that Greenspan made with his director, Jack Cummings III, and his dramaturg, Kristina Corcoran Williams. Their efforts resulted in hacking the full-length piece down to just over an hour—and that includes the occasional recitation of stage directions.

Cummings, the artistic director of the Transport Group, had cast Greenspan in a reading of The Boys in the Band and also seen his work in The Myopia, another one-man show that Greenspan had written for himself. “He proposed that I find a play that I could do on my own,” Greenspan says. “We batted around a few ideas, but this was the first play we did an actual reading of.”

Once the play was selected and the action trimmed down, it was time to figure out who was talking to whom and when. After locating what he calls “intuitive vocal or physical ideas” of each of the eight characters, Greenspan took careful notation during rehearsals about where each of his characters stood and when they moved, and he then set up his apartment to resemble the set.

Despite the inherent camp factor of playing as many three women simultaneously, Greenspan makes a point of taking each character seriously, even as they launch into stock romance scenes or snippets of dialogue that could be described as ersatz Odets.

“We wanted to be really respectful of the work and not make fun of it,” Greenspan says. “I said to Jack, ‘I don’t want to be campy, so always watch me.’ And he was very diligent about it.”

He benefited from the familiarity of The Patsy—maybe not the title itself but certainly the story and characters that Conners drew upon. “They’re of a type that we recognize,” he says. “It’s kind of a Cinderella story, and it’s a genre that’s accessible, I think.”

Greenspan, who frequently performs The Myopia, which he describes as “an epic burlesque of tragic proportion,” on a double bill with a pre-existing piece (Gertrude Stein’s lecture on the theatre), here reverses this ratio. This time the adaptation is the main attraction, and at most Patsy performances he’ll pair it with a new work, Jonas, a weightier playlet that explores the imagined inner life of the title character.

“Character” is the appropriate word here: Jonas is the butler that Greenspan played in last year’s Broadway revival of The Royal Family. He says, “Even though I didn’t have that many lines, I was on and off the stage a lot, so I spent a lot of time in the wings, since I didn’t really have time to go up to the dressing room. And I got to thinking about an offstage life for my character.”

The resulting piece catches up with Jonas decades after the events depicted in George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 comedy, sketching in the butler’s considerable and sometimes lurid back story while also creating an additional layer of representation as Jonas himself imagines a third character. Meanwhile, Greenspan, who narrates the play, juggles his perceptions of both figures.

Wherever these puzzling characters are and however they got there, they have a lot to say. And depending on audience response (and his own stamina), Greenspan may perform Jonas alongside The Patsy every night. He clearly relishes borrowing the personae of these old characters and then putting them back for the next actor who will inhabit them. Discussing his portrayal of Jonas, Greenspan says he has “taken him on, not as a competition, but as a relay.”

Eric Grode is the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press).

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