David Greenspan's Must-See Myopia

01/19/2010 4:00 PM |

Watching David Greenspan perform The Myopia (at Atlantic Stage 2 through February 7), a monologue that he bills as "an epic burlesque of tragic proportions," it's hard not to feel that you are in the presence of something unclassifiable. In other people's plays, Greenspan has long made himself an essential ingredient of the New York theater; even in small roles, his deadly nightshade gestures, purring voice and lethal comic timing have leapt out from the corners of the stage, so that even the uninitiated would have to wonder, "Who is that?" Given full rein here, Greenspan sits in a chair for two hours, plus intermission, conjuring up plays within plays within plays. The innermost play is about Warren Harding, the hapless 29th President of the United States. Outside of this play is a kitchen sink tragedy about Febus, who sits on the toilet trying to write the book of a Warren Harding musical, and his unhappy wife Koreen. The play outside of this one concerns Barclay, the son of Febus and Koreen, who is struggling to finish his father's Harding musical. And at the top of the second act, The Doppelganger, who is either Carol Channing or played by Carol Channing, makes sure that several acts of The Myopia are cut.

Needless to say, this can be rather difficult to follow, yet the most vivid sections of The Myopia stand apart from Greenspan's theoretical superstructure. When Febus and Koreen have an explosive argument in the first act, Greenspan, playing both roles, rises to such a crescendo of nagging fury and impotent rage that he seems to be channeling some actual fight conducted in a Lower East Side tenement, circa 1925. The fight is waged in a totally vanished idiom and context, and I'm not sure what it means or how it relates to Warren Harding, not to mention Carol Channing, but Greenspan is so virtuosic in his delivery that we have no choice but to be swept along by his performing energy. When he does women's voices, they're so polished and purely feminine that you could swear he must be lip-synching to something pre-recorded. His men are even creepier than his women, tetchy old-timers who never made it, or self-satisfied politicos all-aquiver with cynical maneuvering.

On weekends, Greenspan performs The Myopia in the evening and in the afternoon does a Gertrude Stein lecture, Plays, a pretty excruciating piece of repetitive material that he delivers from behind a desk, with little movement. Plays sets up the major concerns of The Myopia; Greenspan, like Stein, is interested in isolating what theater is and how it works. As a text, The Myopia is a wet dream for a theater history teacher, and it has already made an impact in the classroom and on other playwrights. Though it can be read with pleasure, you need to see Greenspan actually doing it with all his bells and whistles blowing to really get a sense of how exciting and dangerous it is. There are several points in this performance where Greenspan contorts his face in such a violently original manner that it feels like you're watching someone speaking in tongues, or having some kind of religious experience through shtick. Even at his most ultra-femme, Greenspan has an edge so disquieting that it might cut you to pieces at any moment with a look, a howl, a warning. I sat riveted throughout The Myopia, but "riveted" is really too weak a word for what is a totally sui generis theatrical experience. Don't miss it.

(photo credit: Jon Wasserman)