nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
July 23, 2011
A forgotten Cinderella story from 1925 would seem an odd choice for a one-man show, but actor David Greenspan brings The Patsy to vivid, masterful life—reveling in the play’s sweet-natured comedy but never once descending into camp. Greenspan gives a tour de force performance notable not only for its sanguine grace but its starling sincerity. For anyone interested in reviving lost drama, or observing a master actor at work, The Patsy is a must-see.
Together with director Jack Cummings III and dramaturg Kristina Corcoran Williams, Greenspan has whittled Barry Conners’s original play into a lighting-quick 75 minutes. A hit on Broadway in 1925 (and the inspiration for a subsequent silent film), The Patsy is very much of its time…then every so often, it shimmers with glints of undated humanity. Its cozy sentimentality revolves around stereotypical gender roles: Pop Harrington is a bluff, good-natured patriarch who can’t cope with all these crazy womenfolk; mama May is a neurotic who wants to keep up with the Joneses; pretty, petty older sister Grace is a diva; younger, kind sister Patricia is a Cinderella waiting for her prince. Patricia is the overlooked sister (the Patsy of the title)—overshadowed by the more glamorous Grace and content to settle for second best, until she sets her sights on the handsome Tony Anderson, the suitor Grace rejects in favor of a flashier man. In many ways, the Harringtons’ lovelorn eccentricities predict the nostalgic MGM family comedies of the 1940s, like a Jazz Age Meet Me in St. Louis.
Under Greenspan’s precise characterization and Cummings's smart direction, these characters come across as fully-rounded human beings, punctuated by surprising moments of empathy. Patricia’s collapse into tears when she discovers her mother May never loved her—she favors the showier, pushier Grace—is genuinely heartbreaking. And even May, with her cruel rejection of Patricia and her chronic, comic whining, never becomes a caricature. As Greenspan’s voice rises to a Margaret Hamiltonesque wail when May blubs for the 20th time about the indignity of taking a streetcar when everybody else has an automobile, you pity her petty striving as much as laugh at her.
Cummings and Greenspan have choreographed every moment, every step, every gesture carefully—so it’s almost always clear which character is which. In one moment, Greenspan is haughty Grace, posed with the angular stance of a flapper fashion plate, then he turns and instantly transforms into the humble, skipping lilt of Patricia. Only during heightened bouts of emotion—as when the Harrington women break out into a quarrel about going to the country club dance—is it sometimes difficult to decipher who’s who. The pace nearly always clips briskly. It sags in only a few comic bits whose timing doesn’t seem ironed out, as when Grace has an overly labored, angry conversation with an uncooperative telephone operator.
Dane Laffrey’s ingenious, pared down box set evokes a 1925 middle class living room, replete with various needlepoint cushioned chairs for Greenspan to strategically position himself during his instant shift from one character to the next. Like Greenspan’s performance, the set establishes the groundwork but encourages us to fill in details. It’s up to us to visualize the broad staircase, the mirror before which Grace constantly preens, the imposing front door.
In all, The Patsy is a charming, delightful resurrection of a lost 1925 play and a showcase for a virtuosic performance from Greenspan. On most nights, in runs in repertory with Greenspan’s new monologue Jonas, based on the butler he played in Broadway’s The Royal Family. Both offer startlingly fresh new ways of reinterpreting “old” work.