The singular David Greenspan has carved out an idiosyncratic place for himself in the theater as a character actor of sinuous force and also as a very demanding playwright. Greenspan has been seemingly everywhere on New York stages for years, in a Richard Foreman play here, a Tennessee Williams revival there, on Broadway and in more confined spaces. Unsettling, uncanny, his work never takes the easy way and always insists on looking straight into psychic areas that most of us would prefer to keep hidden. Any new play by Greenspan is an event, just as any appearance he makes is unlikely to be forgotten.
The Abrons Arts Center is presenting a world premiere of a new Greenspan play, I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees, directed by his long-time collaborator Leigh Silverman and running from March 19 through April 4. This new play was inspired by a chance viewing of a photograph of Twelvetrees, an obscure star of early-1930s movies. “The first photo of Twelvetrees I found was a glamorous publicity still that I later learned was taken in Australia during a film shoot,” says Greenspan. “In it she is gazing into a mirrored tabletop so that the viewer sees her looking down at her reflection, almost as if she was looking into a pool of water. And her gaze suggests that she is puzzled by her own image. That idea—being perplexed by one’s image—gave me the idea for a play.”
I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees is not a straightforward account of Twelvetrees’s career but something more suggestive and imaginative. “I’ve seen only snippets of her films,” says Greenspan. “I’ve not written a biographical play. It is very loosely based on an outline of her career. And when I came across information about her first husband Clark Twelvetrees and his failed acting career, I felt I could include the catastrophic trajectory of his life as well. But there too, the significant aspects of his character are totally of my invention.”
Greenspan plays several roles in this new play, as he does in perhaps his greatest theatrical achievement so far, a one-man tour-de-force called The Myopia. “Primarily, I play a young man who, moved by Helen Twelvetrees’s artistry, seeks her out at the Long Island theater in which she is playing in A Streetcar Named Desire,” says Greenspan. “I also play secondary characters, including Helen Twelvetree’s second and third husbands and Clark Twelvetrees’s second wife.”
Though he has managed to survive in a difficult profession for quite a while, Greenspan is not comfortable making recommendations for others when it comes to spending a life in the theater. “I don’t really have any advice,” he says. “I feel intention has not been the main determinant in the development of my career. There’s a wonderful quote from Gertrude Stein that I think is applicable: ‘None of this has been intentional. One may say generally speaking that anything that is really inevitable—that is to say necessary—is not intentional.’”