… transformations …

The setting, the deck of Claire’s beach house around Montauk, on the East End of Long Island, is delightful and the play is pleasant in a summery way well into it, with sun shining on the deck, the ocean near by, and a touch of the magic of time travel. Lunch is being prepared, conversations swirl, tensions emerge among the characters to keep things interesting. Claire’s a successful actress while her friend and fellow actress, Charlotte, has to scramble for parts. Tom’s a successful producer, on hand because he’s working with Claire on her next play, but he and his partner Malcolm are at odds because of Tom’s compulsive promiscuity.

Then, in a scene shift, we meet Passalus, who once lived as an actor in Ancient Greece: now God (why not Zeus?) sends him emphatically, and as way to earn his release from purgatory, to our contemporary world to straighten out the relationships of this particular Hamptons gathering.

To be able to fulfill his assignment, Passalus arrives on Claire’s deck disguised in the form of a chatty 72 year old woman with an English accent -– nobody’s sure where she came from or why but the point isn’t pushed –- English accents are so protective. David Greenspan, a brilliant performer, and inevitably hilarious at playing women, plays Passalus in this, his play.

But instead of simply doing what God commanded, Passalus falls in love: with Claire’s son, Wally, a pleasant young man but, brooding over a lost love, a determined loner. But for Passalus to be able to take long walks on the beach with Wally, and to woo him, the guise of an old lady just won’t cut the mustard. Passalus changes himself into the male actor he really is — or was back then in Ancient Greece — and, as needed, transforms himself back into the old lady.  Greenspan changes from male to female and back again at the drop of a hat –- in mid sentence, no costume change needed for him to be convincing. So there’s lots of fun here with confused identities.

Abruptly, the play becomes emotionally intense as Passalus, smarting from Wally’s rejection, grieves mightily, about Wally and, more generally, about the transformations of time — becoming an aging, wrinkled actor whose lost his looks, lost his appeal and, as he sees it, is fated to be unloved and alone.  We’re not prepared for the shift in tone, and the emotions seem too raw.

Then, though nothing happens to explain it, Wally changes his mind and we’re given to think that Wally and Passalus will live happily ever after — or at least for a reasonably long time.  And almost everybody else’s relationship problems are resolved, too; Tom, formerly driven to promiscuity, will henceforth be faithful.  Really?  How?  We don’t see it. And almost out of the blue (there was an early, unexplained phone call but that seems like a mechanical plant) we learn that Claire will be dead of cancer in a year.  Huh? That resolution is unsatisfying because it’s so arbitrary – i.e., why did the playwright do that when he could have done this or the other?

In alternating between Passalus the actor from ancient Greece acting as a contemporary man, and the 72 year old English Lady, Greenspan pulls off a fine tour de force;  he’s such a fascinating performer that you watch him even when he’s in the background and not part of the action.  Among the other fine performances, Lisa Banes is wonderful as Claire – timing, wit, drama, stage presence, she has everything and it’s a privilege to see her.

Miscellaneous:  Speaking of transformations … I wondered why Greenspan names his character Passalus?  Looking up the word, I found it’s the name of one of a pair of thievish scamps in Classical mythology, the Kerkopes brothers, who for punishment, are transformed into wrinkled, old, monkey-men, as in Ovid’s long poem of transformations, Metamorphoses — and as Passalus feels he’s become in his moment of agonized despair in the play.   If that not enough of an explanation, it’s also the name of a certain horned beetle.   P. S. The playwright Agathon wrote in the 5th Century B.C.

In one of the breaks from sheer play to sly communications with the audience, Passalus/Greenspan suggests that Go Back To Where You Are may be a sketch, not a play, and I can see why he entertains the thought.

Go Back To Where You Are plays at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater on West 42nd Street through May 1.