Down on Grand Street, the Abrons Arts Center’s gracefully elegant, old-school theater provides a perfect setting for its current production of The Patsy by Barry Conners (1882-1933), a old-timey, high comedy which first ran on Broadway in 1925 and which then became a silent film in 1928, starring Marion Davies and Marie Dressler.
The plot and characters of The Patsy are as dusty and quaint as grandma’s old sofa, but who doesn’t remember how endearing, warm, comfortable and familiar grandma’s old sofa was? Such adjectives can heartily be applied to this evening’s performance of The Patsy, a drawing room comedy which unfolds in a delightful 80 minutes of charm, fluff, and whimsy.
The 1920’s story centers around two competitive sisters, the shellfish, spoiled, and manipulative Grace Harrington and her shy, less confident sister Patricia Harrington (the “Patsy”). Mrs. Harrington clearly favors Grace, while Mr. Harrington tries his hardest to support Patricia in the absence of her mother’s affections.
Antics pursue as Grace arbitrarily drops one man, Mr. Tony Anderson, in favor of another, Mr. Billy Caldwell. Her ambivalent change in men suits Patricia just fine, since she’s been in love with Tony ever since she first laid eyes on him. But once Grace gets wind of Patricia’s interest in Tony, Grace’ mean-spirited and fickle ways try to interfere with Patricia’s hopes for a happy future with Tony.
The show plays like a skit on the Carol Burnett Show, or perhaps a Charles Busch vehicle, and both comparisons are meant to convey high praise. The most remarkable thing about this production is that all four of Harrington family members, the two male suitors, and even the bit parts of Sadie Buchanan, a socialite friend, and Tip Busty, a taxi driver, are all played by the one force of nature, actor David Greenspan.
Greenspan, a six-time Obie Award winner, whirls at breakneck speed through this three-act play in just over an hour, transforming from one character to the next with expert fluidity. He transitions between the highly dramatic and entitled Grace, the histrionic and prideful Mrs. Harrington, the simple but lovable Mr. Harrington, the gentle and sweet Patricia, and the gangly, dopey gentleman callers Tom Anderson and Billy Caldwell, drawing on every gender-bending limb, muscle, hand, voice, look or facial gesture he can muster. Even the brusque Tip Busty and party girl Sadie Buchanan get their own unique treatment.
It takes a scene or two for the audience to acclimate to Greenspan’s characterizations and to better identify the transitions between them, but as the production reaches its stride one almost feels as though there were eight different actors performing in the production. And for all the broad strokes Greenspan employs, there are subtle and delicate ones, too. Patricia’s sadness at the absence of her mother’s love is truly heartbreaking, and watching the innocent, burgeoning love affair grow between Patricia and Tony brings hopeful smiles and infinite joy to the audience. Greenspan is a chameleon that changes colors with lightning speed, maximizing comedy but never sacrificing sincerity or intent.
The prim and detailed set design by Dane Laffrey is presented inside a shadowbox that resembles a doll house created in the time period of the play. Humorously, it depicts not the Harrington home, but rather a simply a space for Greenspan to perform in, set with time-appropriate furniture. But not to worry, in the opening of the play, after Greenspan bounds onto the stage, he fully reads the stage directions out loud so we can imagine what the Harrington home looks like inside as he performs through it.
Greenspan is a genius in The Patsy, and direction by Jack Cummings II, co-founder and artistic director of Transport Group, is exquisite; the build up of the story as it unfolds at Greenspan’s hand could not have been better shaped, and he keeps this three-act play going at a record pace.
The Patsy is a fast-paced, delightful, period romp with enough humor and heart for all audiences. Check it out.
The Patsy (March 30 – April 30, 2022)
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, in Manhattan
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission