The Argument & Dinner Party
nytheatre.com review by Larry Kunofsky
June 15, 2007
The lights don't shift. There's no Turn Off Your Cell Phones or Please Sign Our Mailing List pre-curtain speech. David Greenspan just walks out onto the large and cluttered stage at The Kitchen, dressed for a summer evening, and delivers The Argument, casually, without any real pretense, and brilliantly, to an audience that can't help but smile.
Target Margin Theater is a company that has done some very good work with classical literature. Last season, they presented an intriguing production of Goethe's Faust. Target Margin is dedicating this season to The Greeks, and The Argument and Dinner Party are based on Aristotle and Plato, respectively. Dinner Party is an ensemble piece for the company, and The Argument is a solo piece written and performed by David Greenspan. The two pieces work very well together, making up a full and rich evening of theatre. What lingers most in my mind about this show, though, is Greenspan turning what could have been a dry lecture into an impassioned and kinetic theatrical event.
The Argument is based mainly on Aristotle's Poetics, which is a philosophical text on the nature and purpose of Drama. It's kind of an early Greek version of Syd Field or Robert McKee, or any of the other millions of How To books out there for screenwriters. The Poetics references lots of plays that are still performed to this day, such as Oedipus Rex and Medea, as well as some Greek plays that have not survived history. Aristotle's ideas are—for the most part—still not only relevant today, but also almost irrefutable. The very foundations of our understanding of what makes Drama work stems from the ideas that Aristotle set forward here. The Argument is also based in part on the writings of Greek scholar Gerald F. Else. If this all sounds like school, rather than play, don't worry. In the hands of David Greenspan, all of this theory and abstraction becomes very entertaining and surprisingly moving.
Greenspan is a playwright and actor much respected in the downtown theatre scene in New York. His presence on stage is mesmerizing. He often seems, as he is delivering The Argument, to be doing calisthenics and dance, and yet he never seems to be doing anything forced or inorganic. He seems to synthesize thought and movement into a cohesive whole like no one else I've seen on stage so far this year. He kind of reminds me of Mr. Fantastic from Fantastic Four comics (not the movie version, which seems streamlined and dull to me.) Greenspan has brown hair with graying temples and a lanky form which seems to stretch around the way only Cosmic Ray-altered cartoon geniuses can. As Greenspan paraphrases Aristotle and Else and goes on about Tragedy and the emotional state it renders to an audience, we in the audience laugh at the overly academic approach to the basic and common feelings we all have shared until we, ourselves, are brought to an emotional state that sneaks up on us and yet is deeply felt. Somehow The Argument becomes a dramatic representation of these much discussed ideas. If I tried to explain how this happens, it would sound like a lecture. But when Greenspan performs this lecture, it becomes theatrical.
Dinner Party is the second part of the evening, and looks to me like what would happen if David Greenspan were cloned eight times onstage. It features a table with a lot of fruit that these actors will both eat off of and make love on, a sound board that provides almost cartoon-like effects, and a general array of the kind of chaos that a good farce so often supplies. Dinner Party is based on Plato's Symposium, which is a comic and philosophical dialogue on the nature of love which takes place at a dinner party. In the play, rather than using the old Greek character names, the actors in the ensemble are referred to by their own names. For instance, everyone in the play refers to Stephanie Weeks, who portrays Socrates, as "Stephanie."
Han Nah Kim, our hostess in the play, gathers her friends for a dinner party to celebrate her recent Obie. As the party struggles to get its rove on, it is suggested that everyone give a speech on love. And then Steven Rattazzi, Greig Sargeant, Mary Neufeld, and everybody else give lively little arias on the theme. The play is light and funny, like a soufflé. The cast seems to be having as much fun as the audience. A philosophical dialogue is transformed into something abundantly theatrical. Director David Herskovits keeps the play lively by having the actors move about in Dinner Party in a way that mirrors Greenspan's solo movements from the earlier part of the evening. Basically, with all the pontificating and postulating on the nature of love, the play is still just a hoot.
I was reminded throughout the evening of how the playwright Charles L. Mee has transformed so many Greek texts into theatre for our age, infusing comic book imagery and rock 'n roll sensibility with catharsis and all that Greek stuff. Whether directly or indirectly influenced by Mee, Target Margin does a great job of making the ancient seem new again. We have so much to think about upon leaving The Argument and Dinner Party, but most importantly, this is an evening of theatre which yields deeply felt emotions that you wouldn't experience from a mere trip to the library with Aristotle and Plato.