NEW YORK—Actor/writer David Greenspan shines a light on a forgotten figure in his new show, “I’m Looking For Helen Twelvetress,” about a New York actress who came to Hollywood in the early days of talking pictures.
Greenspan anchors his story in the summer of 1951 in the town of Sea Cliff, Long Island, where 16-year-old Mike (Greenspan) has traveled across the country to see Twelvetrees (Brooke Bloom) in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The actress had turned to summer stock when her film career faded.
The story then flashes back to 1928, when a young Helen, having gotten her first taste of fame by being photographed by The Saturday Evening Post, is full of optimism about the future. Her optimism does not last as her life is soon filled with personal struggles and pain.
Greenspan focuses on Helen’s personal life as he tries to present an image of who this woman was, particularly in regard to her relationship with her first husband, Clark Twelvetrees (Keith Nobbs). She keeps his last name after the divorce.
A frustrated actor, Clark had a violent temper when he drank; he also tried to commit suicide in an attempt to prevent Helen from leaving him. Despite their being unable to live together, they seemed unable to live apart. Their continuing connection colored Clark’s second marriage to Ann (Greenspan) and Helen’s second union to Jack Woody (Greenspan), a movie stuntman turned realtor.
In an interesting touch, Greenspan has various scenes playing out more than once, with certain moments shown before any back story is given and then again when more information has been added. This technique gives the same sequences more resonance the second time around, working especially well when showing a physical confrontation involving Clark.
It should be noted that while Greenspan uses Helen’s background as a springboard, much of what’s actually presented—including what’s described above—is completely fictional, with characters added and dates purposefully not fitting together, a point Greenspan himself makes.
For the truth is that much of who Helen Twelvetress was is lost to us. This fact inspired Greenspan to create this piece when he came across an old photo of the actress and began to imagine the person behind the image.
Greenspan does a good job in the various roles, changing his voice and attitude for the different personae he inhabits. Each of these people tries to understand and/or compete with Helen’s memories of her past relationships and career.
Nobbs gives a nicely tormented performance as Clark—a man with big dreams, who sees them overshadowed by Helen’s early rise and by the lack of his own abilities.
Bloom is excellent as Helen, a woman who seemingly had so much to look forward to, but who quickly becomes consumed with her own memories of what was and what could have been. Eventually she’s only comfortable looking backward rather than forward.
Direction by Leigh Silverman is strong, especially in the various physical scenes that could have easily come off as comic, but instead play as quite realistic and, at times, plainly raw.
Silverman and Greenspan have worked together before and that familiarity clearly shows in their ability to take a deliberately disjointed piece and tie it together into a coherent and touching whole. The final moment is particularly heartbreaking.
The set by Antje Ellermann, basically a grassy landscape and a couple of lawn chairs, works well, and lighting by Jennifer Schriever fits nicely with the story.
“I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees” isn’t so much a portrait about a particular figure as rather a comment on how everyone and everything eventually passes into memory; the only question is how long before that will happen for us all. It’s a story well told indeed.
‘I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees’
Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand St.
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or ArbronsArtsCenter.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: April 4
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.