“This play is weird,” announces Bernard, a playwright (Brian Hutchison), in the first few minutes of David Greenspan’s Go Back to Where You Are, and he’s right. Greenspan’s melancholy meditation on love, loss, and second chances finds the author himself playing Passalus, a demon in torment, who is sent by God (Tim Hopper) to earth on a mission that doesn’t go as they’d planned. Whether that idea is drawn from Ben Jonson’s The Devil Is an Ass is unclear, but Greenspan’s complex, rueful new work owes obvious debts to Chekhov and Pirandello. Gathering for dinner at the beach house owned by Claire, a renowned actress (as Arkadina is in The Seagull), are Claire’s brother, Bernard; her son, Wally (Michael Izquierdo); her old friend and soon-to-be director after a 15-year absence, Tom (Stephen Bogardus), and his lover, Malcolm (also Hopper); and an old family friend, Charlotte (Mariann Mayberry), a talented actress with a bundle of insecurities who never made it big the way Claire did. Also invited is a septuagenarian named Mrs. Simmons.
As in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, the action begins on a birthday—that of Carolyn, Claire’s daughter—and the anniversary of a death—it is a year to the day since Mark, Wally’s lover, died of prostate cancer. It is also 20 years to the day since Claire’s own husband, Robert, died. But the nods to Chekhov are occasionally of a more light-hearted cast, as when Izquierdo’s sensitive Wally, recalling his sterile creative life as a TV writer in Los Angeles, blurts out, “Oh please don’t let me shoot my brains out at the end of Act 4.” (At the same time, the abundant theater humor can become too insiderish.)
The narration hops around from Bernard to Passalus, and other characters briefly speak their thoughts about the play, often interjected into the midst of dialogue with one another. The unsettled Charlotte notices repeatedly that “there’s no chronology.” Scenes occur out of order, and astute listening is required to pick up and assemble the dramatic mosaic.
But Greenspan leavens what sounds effortful (but really isn’t, thanks to the sensitive direction of Leigh Silverman) with a number of comic Pirandellian moments, as in an exchange between Claire and Tom:
Claire: I must be getting Alzheimer’s. I didn’t tell Charlotte that you and Malcolm were coming and didn’t tell you and Malcolm that Bernard was coming. What’s going on with me?
Tom: Maybe it’s a problem with the writing.
As the story progresses, one realizes that Lisa Banes’s Claire is a charming but duplicitous monster sacré, and that her offspring really do need to escape from her, as does Bernard, whose work she belittles. (Tom, however, says he likes Bernard’s plays, though he doesn’t always “get” them—a sly nod to Greenspan’s own work.)
Go Back encompasses a day, a week, and millennia—the feelings it deals with are universal and timeless. Passalus relates his own history of being an actor in ancient Greece, in love with a chorus boy, Daeas—and most of the characters are struggling not only with the agony of having lost a lover, but with the messiness of those relationships. “He could be a monster, Patrick,” confesses Hutchison’s emotionally bewildered Bernard about his late partner. “We weren’t well suited. Maybe we were… He was angry. AIDS made him angrier. We would have split up, but then he got sick.” Or Wally speaking in his mind to Mark: “Your drinking—that didn’t help.”
Although Passalus’s mission is to help the unseen Carolyn break free of Claire, and the human guise he assumes is that of the elderly Mrs. Simmons, he cannot help but violate the promise that he has made to God to avoid interfering in anyone else’s life.
Rachel Hauck’s simple set—a sand fence, a plank deck, and a few summer chairs—and Matt Frey’s delicate lighting help keep the focus on the words and the actors while evoking both the place and the wistful mood. For all its leaps in time and interruptions of thought, the bits coalesce into a fascinating whole.
At the end of this humane, hopeful work, Greenspan departs from Chekhovian despair with redemption and forgiveness for those who deserve second chances. It’s a weird play, yes, but it’s also deeply touching.