Go Back to Where You Are
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
April 8, 2011
Like many of the Greek tragedies it takes its inspiration from, there’s a lot of standing around in Go Back to Where You Are at Playwrights Horizons. Fortunately, no one stands around quite like or quite so well as David Greenspan.
Written by and starring Greenspan, Go Back to Where You Are lands us at a beach house on the eastern end of Long Island in summer. Claire, a successful actress, is hosting a small Sunday evening barbecue to celebrate her daughter Carolyn’s birthday and all appears perfectly and appropriately calm. Thanks to Rachel Hauck’s understated scenic design, the sun-bleached grey wood of Claire’s deck and its row of Adirondack chairs blends with the looming, overcast horizon behind it—a perfect Montauk picture. But, as Claire’s struggling playwright brother Bernard explains to us at the outset, “This is a weird play.” Not because, as is often the case, a calm exterior belies a turbulent underbelly and resentment, discontent, pain, and more are bubbling below the calm. Rather, because stuck in among these perfectly familiar and flawed human beings is Passalus, a millenniums-old Greek actor whom God has sent to steer the path of Carolyn. I should mention that, although she is the focus of Passalus’s mission, we never actually meet Carolyn. Like the main action of many Greek plays, her story remains offstage. In fact, its outcome is almost inconsequential. It is the ripple effects of Passalus being there for Carolyn that interest us. God is very specific with Passalus. He is not to meddle with anyone else’s path but Carolyn’s or he will not receive the reward he seeks—namely, oblivion, escape into blissful nothingness. Unfortunately, like all heroes, Passalus has a tragic flaw, and sticking to the rules proves difficult.
Despite Greenspan’s warnings of weirdness ahead, the play is not actually all that strange. Poetic, disjointed, and hilarious at times, yes. But if by “weird” he means to apologize for characters who literally speak their inner minds and a story of human beings whose lives are disrupted by divine intervention, then “Greek” would suffice. Greenspan, in fact, embraces the play’s Greekness and even seems to mock it, repeatedly calling attention to the fact that he is brazenly resisting any attempt at unity of time by having characters exclaim, “There is no chronology!” There certainly is an oddness to the play, though, and it is unapologetically rooted in Greenspan himself. Just so I’m not misunderstood, that is most definitely a good thing. Having seen him perform in numerous productions—most not his own plays—I can say that he is one of the most gifted and uniquely watchable actors you’ll see on stage today. There really isn’t anyone else like him. He’s somehow developed a gestural language and vocal style that manage to be both otherworldly and comfortingly homespun. More often than not, it is also incredibly affecting. If that’s confusing, it should be. I’m not sure why it works, but it does. Whether playing Mephistopheles in Target Margin Theatre’s Faust or lecturing in The Argument (his own adaptation of Aristotle’s Poetics) Greenspan is simply fun to watch and listen to. This is even more true when he’s written the play he’s in. As Passalus, he has a lyric fluidity that is hard to look away from. It’s also hard to keep up with, which, under Leigh Silverman’s gentle direction, the cast is able to do to varying degrees of success.
Greenspan peoples his balmy deck with a crowd of familiar theatrical archetypes, all of whom revolve somewhat literally around Claire. There is Charlotte (Claire’s overlooked but seemingly more talented former Julliard classmate), Tom (a hotshot director), Wally (Claire’s son, a writer in Los Angeles), Malcolm (Tom’s overshadowed, taken-for-granted partner), and Bernard. If Greenspan’s Passalus finds lyricism in his somewhat perpetual motion, Brian Hutchison’s Bernard finds it in quiet contemplation. Hutchison find the perfect pitch for Bernard, moving through the play in a haze, constantly claiming to be thinking about “the play, my play” but giving it the weight of so much more. Mariann Mayberry gives Charlotte an aching desperation that most of us are all too familiar with. More than anyone else, she matches Greenspan in the ability to show us someone whose inner and outer lives butt right up against each other so that the line between the two is almost indistinguishable but not so much so that we mistake it for insanity. As Claire, Lisa Banes oozes with the tension of a barely contained scream, the kind of tension that is the result of a life lived pushing others down. We have to dislike her intensely, and we do thanks to Banes’s generous performance. Some of the other actors struggle a bit with finding the balance that Greenspan’s script demands and there are one or two moments when it almost seems as if Silverman has left the actors to their own devices, but, overall, the ensemble is very strong and the play develops a rhythm all its own.
Go Back to Where You Are is a play in which masks are donned and dropped. Passalus literally disguises himself but has difficulty keeping his true self—and feelings—hidden, and everyone he meets is clinging to their own disguises. The idea that we all wear masks that need to be shed—or that we can’t help shedding—is not new. It’s so old, in fact, that it’s Greek. But Greenspan seems to be saying that “old” is relative. Where we are is where we were. In asking us to go back, he’s simply asking us to stand still. And in standing still, we may be able to see who we really are.