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Review: David Greenspan’s ‘Go Back to Where You Are’: charmingly offbeat and yet off by a beat

Justin Huen, left, John Fleck, Annabelle Gurwitch and Shannon Holt in "Go Back to Where You Are" at the Odyssey in L.A.
(Enci Box)

David Greenspan, an actor and playwright with the charisma of a genial space alien, writes the kinds of plays that allow his eccentric virtuosity to shine.

“Go Back to Where You Are,” his 2011 topsy-turvy romantic comedy about a vacationing group of grief-stricken theater people now having its West Coast premiere at the Odyssey Theatre, is both characteristic of his work and something of a departure.

The merry meta-theatrical high jinks and backstage banter that allowed “She Stoops to Comedy” (Greenspan’s best play in my book) to light up like a Christmas tree are flamboyantly on display here. So too is the author’s obsession with ancient Greece that is threaded throughout his body of work, which includes “The Argument” (a lecture on Aristotle’s “Poetics”) and “Dinner Party” (a play inspired by Plato’s “Symposium”).

Part Pirandello, part Chekhov (“The Seagull” looms large), “Go Back to Where You Are” is a play only Greenspan could have written. But it also shares some DNA with contemporary comedies of love and loss by Terrence McNally (“Love! Valour! Compassion!” in particular) and Richard Greenberg (“Eastern Standard” came fleetingly to mind). Indeed, there’s the germ of a Broadway hit tucked inside this relentlessly offbeat play.

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Which is to say there’s a lot going on in this 80-minute comedy that pretends it’s still being written as it’s being performed. The actors, under the direction of Bart DeLorenzo, comment on the play’s dramaturgical problems in humorous asides. One line that is repeated several times, “there is no chronology,” applies as much to the playwright’s philosophical worldview as to the dramatic architecture.

Bernard (Justin Huen) is an unconventional playwright and teacher working on a new piece at his beach cottage in the East End of Long Island. His grand sister, Claire (Shannon Holt), a well-known actress who sniffs her disapproval at his experimental plays, is hosting a gathering of theater friends at her swankier home nearby.

The occasion is the birthday of Claire’s visiting daughter, who never appears (as the guests keep sardonically pointing out). As this day also marks the anniversary of the death of Claire’s husband, the mood is as somber as it is festive.

Wally (Andrew Walke), Claire’s son now living in L.A., arrives with his store of grief for his dead lover and confusion over his stalled career. Charlotte (Annabelle Gurwitch), an actress accustomed to being overshadowed by Claire, is on hand with her usual load of uncertainties and regrets. Tom (Bill Brochtrup), a director with a complicated history with Claire, has brought his lover, Malcolm (Jeffrey Hutchinson), a set designer who has grown fed up with Tom’s dalliances with chorus boys.

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As though this weren’t enough to sort through, Greenspan complicates matters further by summoning entities from the other side. Passalus (John Fleck), a shape-shifting spirit who was formerly a bit player in ancient Greece, has been sent by God (also played by Hutchinson) on a mission to aid Claire’s daughter.

Disguised as a British matron named Constance Simmons, Passalus becomes privy to everybody’s inner turmoil. A jaded soul who wants to be permanently extinguished after this job is through, he begins to develop an attachment to Bernard, who stumbles upon him on the beach in his masculine persona and wants to learn more about him.

The question the play lightly poses is a heavy one: Can life be restored after so much death and disappointment? The material is rich, but the somersaulting style creates challenges. The larky-melancholy tone of this loopy romp eludes this talented ensemble.

Fleck, the veteran performance artist and actor, is a smart choice on paper for the role of Passalus, the part that Greenspan played himself at New York’s Playwrights Horizons. But the production could use the author’s guidance here. The dialogue lags in a way that suggests the performers are still searching for the play’s rhythm. Everyone is just a beat or two off.

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DeLorenzo’s staging is visually inviting. Nina Caussa’s set design, Halei Parker’s costumes and Michael Gend’s lighting conjure the perfect ambience for a summer frolic. But Greenspan’s trickster magic gets lost in the shuffle.

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“Go Back to Where You Are”

Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.

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When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (call for additional dates). Ends Sept. 4

Tickets: $25-$34

Info: (310) 477-2055 Ext. 2, www.odysseytheatre.com

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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