I hardly know where to start with David Greenspan’s deliriously outlandish farce, She Stoops to Comedy, but happily, that puts me roughly in the same spot as the author.
Greenspan opens the evening at Woolly Mammoth Theatre with a performer who’s trying to conjure theater—which is to say, characters, modes of expression, plotlines—from a blank sheet of paper. Names come first. Inspired by the blank page, the performer morphs into “Alexandra Page,” an actress with a lover named Allison and a best friend who is either a lighting designer or an archaeologist.
Satisfied with this start, Alexandra mumbles, “’K, fine…speak.” And Kay Fein speaks.
Getting the author’s drift? Well, you’d better, because things will shortly become significantly more complicated. Actually, though we’re only about a minute into the evening, I’m already oversimplifying—leaving out the fact that Alexandra is being played by a man (Michael Russotto), and not in drag, either. In fact, I might as well just out with it—deep breath now—this leading lady, played by a man, will disguise herself as a man to get the male lead in a play opposite her lesbian lover who’s been cast as the cross-dressing female lead.
And that’s still barely the half of it. There’s double-casting, both in the play and in the play-within-a-play, not to mention a gay man who hits on Alexandra in her male persona, and a pair of women who hit on each other, which is quite a trick as they’re played by the same actress.
All of which is simplicity itself next to the theatrical conventions Greenspan is upending in a story that mixes elements of two Ferenc Molnár comedies, The Guardsman (which involves actorly disguises) and The Play at the Castle (which centers on writerly subterfuges). Like Molnár, Greenspan is intent on deconstructing the act of playwriting, but he gives the trick a freshly postmodern edge—first writing his characters into corners, then writing them out of them, incorporating into their dialogue all the backups, restarts, rejiggerings, and changes he has to make as he figures out where the plot is going.
There are subtexts galore—sexuality and orientation, male prerogatives, gender as gesture—mostly couched in meta-theatrical games, with a central impulse that’s almost always comic. With cultural references ranging from the Greeks (“I’m fed up with Phaedra”) to Yentl to Charles Ludlam, it’s not always possible to keep up with the playwright’s argument in She Stoops to Comedy, but then, he’s planted plenty of cues suggesting that coherence isn’t really the point. One moment it’ll be 1950, a hiccup later, 1997; and whenever you’re starting to figure out where everyone is, there’ll be a lighting shift, and they’ll all be somewhere else.
As you might imagine, it can all be both exhilarating and wearying, though in Howard Shalwitz’s blissfully self-aware staging, the weariness comes mostly from laughing so hard. The director’s ability to ground Greenspan’s flights of absurdity in a world of recognizable emotion is precisely what the evening requires. On a spare stage with little more than a proscenium arch, a bed, and a door frame to back them, the performers aren’t so much stooping to comedy as hurling themselves at it, wallowing in it, giving themselves over to it so utterly that you fear they’ll do themselves bodily harm.
Kate Eastwood Norris, for instance, is almost certainly courting whiplash when the two characters she’s playing—that mixed-up archaeologist/lighting designer and a vain starlet—have an insult-hurling slapfest of a lovers’ quarrel. On opening night, the seven-minute, pajama-clad, head-spinning duet-for-one she delivered to gales of laughter stopped the show cold and left her spent on the floor. Daniel Escobar’s haymaker of a comic monologue about gay theatrical stereotypes managed a different but similarly effective trick, prompting giggles and then guffaws with a rising arc of “who needs a play about…” riffs, then leaving the audience choking on silence in a wrenching final stanza.
Also doing fine work are Russotto, whose Alexandra negotiates hairpin turns from butch to femme, with stomps, swivels, hair tosses, and a voice that sweeps effortlessly from basso to breathy; and Gia Mora as the lover Alexandra is content to diss and dismiss until she’s all but lost her. The two are pretty captivating together, even as the playwright denies them the big “gender discovery” scene they’ve been building to all evening.
Characteristically capricious, Greenspan chooses that climactic moment to experiment with theatrical narration, expounding on his various plot options, narrowing them down, and even detailing how they might be played out in a sharp comic dissertation on theatrical form. Nicely handled by a microphone-toting Jenna Sokolowski, who is otherwise engaged in keeping a callow director (Daniel Frith) from making a fool of himself, this speech is the dramatic equivalent of a musical’s 11 o’clock number—and that’s no doubt intended since one of the characters has a backstory in musical comedy. It’s also—even as it provides a neat structural joke—ever so slightly deflating, pointing out how very random the evening has become in its nonstop, singleminded, and almost entirely successful pursuit of laughs.