Who hasn’t scrutinized a time-yellowed photograph and wondered about the lives of the people pictured? David Greenspan gazed into the famously sad eyes of actress Helen Twelvetrees in a 1930s publicity still and was instantly bewitched. Finding out who she was took considerably more time, however; despite a modicum of fame and a haunting beauty, which helped her get cast opposite leading men like Spencer Tracey and Maurice Chevalier, Twelvetrees died mostly unmourned and her name and her career are now forgotten. But if Cicero was right that the dead live on in the memories of the living, Greenspan promises the Hollywood starlet a bit more staying power in “I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees,” his absorbingly abstract investigation into the woman behind those eyes.
Working from a box of photographs uncovered at the New York Public Library and the kind of rote bibliographical information generated by Wikipedia, Greenspan has pulled off a tour de force of storytelling in 60 minutes. Rather than record chronology and facts as a historian would – difficult in any case from a distance of over 75 years – the Obie award winning actor and playwright proceeds more like a cubist painter, assembling a fragmented portrait of Twelvetrees seen from multiple angles: by each of her three husbands, by different members of the summer stock theater with whom she performed on Long Island in 1951 and by a precocious imaginary boy, Mike, who travels from Los Angeles to meet her there.
Events telescope and collide in this roller-coaster tale whose landmarks flash by then reappear, intersecting multiple stories, most of which are fictional, including a fleshing out of Twelvetrees’ even less known first husband, Clark, who died ignominiously in a street fight. Mike’s journey – which is also, we understand, partly Greenspan’s – links them all, but in a crazy shorthand whose only guiding principle is memory, both its persistence and its degradation. In Greenspan’s disarmingly direct style, Mike warns us from the beginning to let go of conventions and simply enjoy the ride: “I was born in Los Angeles in 1956. And I traveled in the summer of 1951 to Sea Cliff Long Island – at the age of sixteen – I was born in 1935. And at the age of sixteen – in 1972 – I was looking out a window – opening out on a rolling lawn.”
As himself, Mike and half a dozen other characters, who often appear side by side, Greenspan is the evening’s emcee extraordinaire, although the luminous Brooke Bloom, with the looks and allure of a silent picture star, is no less watchable as the ambitious and sensual Twelvetrees. Keith Nobbs is passably vile as the sexually conflicted and self-destructive Clark. Directed by Leigh Silverman in an exaggerated gestural vocabulary that riffs on silent movies’ magnified sign language and WHAM-POW brawls, the trio exudes both a Silver Screen elegance and an almost cartoonish stereotyping that make the elusive Twelvetrees – whose filmography is never referenced – even harder to grasp. Performed on a gaily green swatch of Astro Turf with the audience in tiers on stage facing the empty seats at Abrons’ Playhouse, the illusion is total.
As desperately as she wanted to live on in the movies, Twelvetrees has receded into oblivion behind greater beauties and talents unfettered by her taste for abusive men and wild vanity. Whether she deserves it or not, Greenspan does her the honor of creating an explosive Hollywood-style tempest in a teacup where seductive dreams, irresistible obsessions and fugitive fame duke it out as they only ever could in Tinsel Town. But no matter how affecting, when memory and substance fade, only the pale image remains.