David Greenspan explores the legacy of Helen Twelvetrees
In some ways, David Greenspan found his play I'm Looking for HelenTwelvetrees
in a photo of the 1930s actress
Included on the cover of the program for the production
, which runs through April 4 at Abrons Arts Center, the image finds Twelvetrees staring down into a mirror, with a pack of Lucky Strikes on a saucer beside her sad-eyed reflection. It's a picture that invites storytelling.
Greenspan found even more inspiration while he was researching Twelvetrees further, uncovering production photos of her performance as Blanche DuBois in a Long Island summer stock production of A Streetcar Named Desire
in the 1950s.
That Tennessee Williams revival is the grounding force for Greenspan's fantasia, which skitters back and forth in time from the1920s to the 50s and hops just as easily between fact and fiction -- often in the same line of dialogue. Greenspan, who plays a variety of roles in the show, may begin with the truth of the actress's life, but it quickly expands to include his own reflections on love, repressed homosexuality, star power, the ephemeral nature of theatrical magic, and the tenderness that can come from accepting life's unruliness with grace.
"I just began swirling the storylines that I knew about [her] marriages, and then really it was a matter of composition and invention where I was just composing the piece almost from a musical standpoint," Greenspan says.
Twelvetrees is an especially apt figure for this type of project because her (largely forgotten) life was just as dramatic as any of the weepies she made at RKO or MGM. Her house burned down as a child; later, her first husband Clark jumped (or fell) out of a window, barely surviving. Greenspan's inventions fit neatly in place with the reality, particularly Clark's close relationship with a male roommate.
The show also has echoes of Greenspan's own life. Some of his personal experiences, for example, are layered onto a film buff named Mike, one of the characters he portrays. (A childhood photo of Greenspan is also literally superimposed onto that image of Twelvetrees on the program.)
"Different motifs kind of developed and occurred in different settings in the course of the play," he says. "The memories that people have of [Clark's roommate], of [Mike's] math teacher who roomed with the drama teacher. Those kinds of things developed as I was composing the play. And then there's the personal story of mine of this particular moment in this math class and how that gets factored into it. Even early on in writing, there was a mingling of what was true and what was invented."
This is all overseen by director Leigh Silverman, a longtime collaborator who shares many of Greenspan's sensibilities. "Years ago I used to direct my own plays that I acted in, and I realized that ultimately I was better off with a director," Greenspan says. "Leigh's very comfortable if I say something about such and such, and likewise I'm able to take in her direction when she has a dramaturgical point, which she's given me about a couple of things. And I'm very ready to take her direction, acting-wise!"
Mark Peikert is the editor-in-chief of Backstage Magazine.
Production photo (featuring Booke Bloom, Keith Nobbs, and Greenspan, L to R) by Theresa Squire