‘Four Saints in Three Acts’ Review: An Opera Becomes a One-Man Show

One minute the actor David Greenspan is giving the preshow speech, as welcoming and easy as can be, explaining that the theater has held the curtain a few minutes because of trouble with the subway, and asking us, the audience, to turn off our phones.

An instant later, with no warning whatsoever, not even a change of light, he has slipped into the play and pulled us with him. It seems somehow like he’s gentled us into it with benevolent trickery — as if he’d said, “Look! Over there,” and while we were distracted ripped a Band-Aid off our skin.

Because, truth be told, even those who adored the experimental virtuosity of his earlier solo projects “The Patsy” and “Strange Interlude” might approach his latest project with some trepidation: a staging of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s large-cast, 1934 opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” as a one-man play, divested of its music.

The script is simply Stein’s libretto, unaltered — a chaotically opaque, willfully bizarre text that occasionally turns inquiring and poetic but is most often principally concerned with the sound of language and the human voice. It doesn’t much go in for fripperies like character and narrative and sense.

Actual number of saints in the play? Dozens, though you will swiftly catch on that Saint Therese is Stein’s unrivaled favorite. Number of acts? Four. This show wants to mess with you, and it will — especially since Thomson decided, before the opera’s premiere in 1934, that Stein’s stage directions should be verbalized by the performers, just part of the show.

The Lucille Lortel Theater, which is presenting “Four Saints” at the Doxsee in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, seems to acknowledge the audience’s potential unease, emblazoning the cover of the program with a quote from Stein about the play: “If you enjoy it you understand it.”

I’m not so sure that’s true of her text, but it certainly is of Greenspan’s mesmerizing interpretation, which rides the circles and switchbacks of Stein’s language like a current. His tone and volume ever-shifting, his sense of humor well in evidence, he makes flickering sense of her verbiage, even as the fragments together form a cyclone of non sequiturs.

Anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the lives of saints should look elsewhere; nothing in this play is that conventional. Still, the performance is approachably easy to enjoy, with one strict caveat. If you are the caregiver of a small child who is going through a repetitive phase, “Four Saints” is likely to drive you straight up the wall. Repetition, loads of it, is Stein’s métier.

“Ordinary pigeons and trees,” Greenspan says, somewhere in the thickets of Act 3. “This is a setting which is as soon which is as soon which is as soon ordinary setting which is as soon which is as soon and noon. Ordinary pigeons and trees.”

Well, of course.

Greenspan’s mesmerizing interpretation rides the circles and switchbacks of Gertrude Stein’s language like a current.Credit…Steven Pisano

Watching Greenspan perform this play, with his silent-screen expressiveness and full-body eloquence, is like watching a manic movie montage spliced together from bits of film, each brief segment making a kind of sense in its moment, independent of the whole. Or like watching channels flipped fast fast fast by someone with zero attention span. And yet Greenspan doesn’t squander a second.

Stein, for all her formidable reputation, liked a good time — and loved experimental derring-do. This pleasurable production, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll and designed by Yuki Nakase Link, makes me wish Stein could see it, maybe trade letters about it with her good friend and playwright pen pal Thornton Wilder, whom she first met when “Four Saints” was new.

“Stein often referred to ‘Four Saints’ as a play,” Greenspan writes in a program note. “I have taken her at her word.”

Ninety-five years after she wrote it, in 1927, her text is as inscrutable as ever. Yet Greenspan, an intrepid investigator, has thrown himself into its mysteries and come away relishing them. Through the generous affection of his meticulous performance, so do we.

Four Saints in Three Acts
Through Oct. 9 at the Doxsee at Target Margin Theater, Brooklyn; Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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