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The Patsy

Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 10, 2022

David Greenspan
Photo by Carol Rosegg
When The Patsy, Barry Conners's comedy about class and marriage, opened in December 1925, critic Brooks Atkinson lamented that the cast was not up to the level of the writing. The "highly amusing play," he wrote, "is of much more intelligently artistic weight than it dares to proclaim." Perhaps if Atkinson had seen the play produced by the Transport Group as a one-person show starring actor and playwright David Greenspan, he might have had an entirely different view.

The play is set in the reasonably well-appointed but not luxurious living room of a middle-American, middle-class family. The cozy scenic design by Dane Laffrey perfectly captures the period with just a few pieces of furniture, a candlestick phone, and slightly faded, floral wallpaper. There are, however, no doors or windows in the room. This gives the effect of a 1920s photograph floating in the theatre's proscenium or as a museum's diorama exhibit devoid of wax figures.

Greenspan, wearing modern clothes, enters from the auditorium and climbs into the photograph/diorama. He formally introduces the play and the seven main characters and then, setting the scene, he recites the opening stage directions. He proceeds to launch into the dialogue between a husband and wife bickering over money, and so begins his dramatization of the complete abridged version (by Greenspan, director Jack Cummings III, and dramaturg Krista Williams) of Conners's three-act play.

At first, Greenspan seems to be giving a backers' audition of sorts in which he tries to evoke what the play might look like in a full-scale production. Conveying all of the play's characters, such as a scheming and social-climbing young woman, her philosophizing Cinderella-like sister (the play's titular role), a roguish cad, and a wealthy and heartsick realtor, Greenspan twirls, sashays, and lumbers from part to part. We marvel at the exaggerated theatrical conventions, and we laugh at the wry downtown performance artist's over-the-top interpretation of the hoary 1920s bourgeois play. Even the sound effects (designed by Michael Rasbury), including doorbells, ringing phones, and revving car engines, are presented through scratchy recordings and remind us of the show's quaintness.

Yet, a funny thing happens–funny-strange not funny-ha-ha–as the romance between the young suitor and the pitiable patsy develops: We are drawn into the play and the characters' relationships and no longer look at the piece simply as historical curiosity. (Mark Barton's warm and caressing lighting offers excellent assistance in creating this sensation.) It's a comparable experience I always have with the film Vanya on 42nd Street, in which I begin as a dispassionate viewer watching a putative rehearsal of Uncle Vanya and then become engrossed in Chekhov's play. Similarly, without our noticing, Greenspan gradually moves from quoting the characters and supplying them with broad, physical gestures to fully embodying them as psychologically complex people. It is a remarkable feat.

Transport Group presented this version of The Patsy in 2011 at the sleek and modern Duke Theater on 42nd Street. The current production, revisited due to its pandemic-friendly quality as a one-person show, benefits from its staging in the Neighborhood Playhouse at the Lower East Side's Abrons Arts Center. The neo-classically designed Playhouse was founded in 1915, and it retains the austerity and decorum of theatres in the early 20th century. The ghostly performance traces of Ethel Barrymore, Isadora Duncan, James Cagney, and many others practically emanate from the walls. The venue provides an additional layer to a playgoer's equivalence of taking part in an archaeological dig and discovering objects in their natural environment.

More than a decade after he first performed the piece, and once again directed by Cummings, Greenspan remains a force of nature. Until he climbs off of the stage after eighty breathless minutes, he seems to be in perpetual motion. While 21st-century audiences might disagree with Atkinson's references to the play's "intelligently artistic weight," Greenspan makes a strong case for its "amusing" qualities and power to entertain. The Patsy, at least in the current iteration, is worth rediscovering again.

The Patsy
Through April 30, 2022
Transport Group, Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: