I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees: Theater review by Adam Feldman
David Greenspan is to the mannerism born. Elongating his syllables in a high-pitched drawl, doling out gestures in careful measure, he wears his theatricality easily and teasingly, as though it were a stripper’s long gloves, to be peeled back for a flash of skin and then rolled forward again. His new play, I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees, takes a similar approach to writing. An imagined encounter with a real-life star of early motion pictures—the marvelously named Helen Twelvetrees (Brooke Bloom)—the piece does not disguise its leaps from biography to fantasy. Rather, it makes those leaps its subject, with affecting refinement and control.
Greenspan’s storytelling has multiple strands. One is based on the faded facts of Twelvetrees's life: her rise to brief fame in the early 1930s, her troubled marriages, her unhappy final years. Another constructs a tragic gay history for the shadowy figure of her first husband, Clark (the reliably good Keith Nobbs), an alcoholic who died in a street brawl. A third involves a fictional teenage boy who travels to Long Island in 1951 to see Twelvetrees play Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire; a fourth is the playwright’s framing-device version of himself, which informs his depiction of the boy. (Greenspan also plays multiple secondary characters, female and male.) The narrative bobbing and weaving, disorienting at first, deftly evokes the interplay of reality and projection when, like the Ancient Greeks, we draw constellations around what we see of the stars.
In Leigh Silverman’s elegant production, the audience sits on what is normally the stage of the Abrons Arts Center, looking out at the venue’s auditorium, whose ghostly emptiness is resonant. Nearly everyone who ever saw Twelvetrees alive, after all, is now dead, and only fragments remain of a once-promising career: photos, reviews, a few obscure movies, dust from the stardom she spent much of herself to attain. Yet she lives on, necessarily altered, in Greenspan’s poignant sketch of her—and in Bloom’s gorgeous performance, which packs stunning depth of feeling into small, telling, clouded moments. True to the animating spirit of the play, she finds emotion in obscurity.—Adam Feldman
Abrons Arts Center (see Off Broadway). By David Greenspan. Directed by Leigh Silverman. With Greenspan, Brooke Bloom, Keith Nobbs. Running time: 1hr 5mins. No intermission.
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