Theresa Rebeck’s The Butterfly Collection is a declaration of serious intent. Where Rebeck’s earlier plays irritated by trashing their material with a know-it-all sitcom smarminess, this one strives for big, anguish-ridden confrontations and complex, interlocking ironies. The scene is a country house in Connecticut; the characters are a Nobel-winning novelist and his family, plus his elder son’s live-in girlfriend of two years and the novelist’s new secretary, herself an aspiring writer. Within the limits of the mucky entanglements mapped out for them, these figures behave with a dignity, consistency, and intensity of purpose that are new and commendable in Rebeck’s stage work. The sad news is that her efforts don’t make the result any better than her previous stabs at playwriting. Here as before, her instinct is for the trite and the second-rate; if the script weren’t relieved, in Bartlett Sher’s production, by three really fine performances, the shrill giddiness of her earlier works would be preferable.
The novelist (Brian Murray) is the household’s predictable sacred monster, alternately raging and melancholically reclusive, hopelessly neglectful of his two sons when he isn’t badgering them beyond all decency, while his infinitely patient wife (Marian Seldes) copes and forgives ad infinitum. The younger son (Reed Birney), who lives over his antiques shop but seems to spend most evenings at his parents’ house, is a wing-clipped bird who can scarcely finish a sentence in his father’s presence. The elder son (James Colby) is a New York actor, all bravado and rebellious ego, who stays away because all of his conversations with Dad turn into instant shouting matches. If you haven’t yet noticed any similarities to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in Act II some of the family will helpfully drive over to Mystic, not far up the shore from O’Neill’s New London.
Rebeck’s ostensible heroine is Sophie, the secretary (Maggie Lacey), who opens and closes the play by telling us about the grandfather she never knew, the accumulator of the title object. Yet in between, Rebeck can’t find anything more interesting for her to do than engage in a clandestine affair with the elder son, while evolving a creative exchange with the novelist that suggests Donald Margulies’s Collected Stories, with heterosexual May-December eroticism added. Of course, Margulies, who confined himself to two characters, was able to dramatize their contrasting generational attitudes toward sex, money, success, and the art of writing, because he had imagined them fully as individuals. Rebeck’s tendency, again as in her earlier work, is to invent not people, but generalized bundles of traits, tied together with little specific information. What sort of work her novelist writes, what achievement won him the Nobel, I have no idea. He’s said to be 10 years late with his current book, but the dictating sessions we hear don’t suggest a man with any sort of writing block. (His publishers are said to want their $300,000 advance back, so Rebeck must not know the vast profit the Nobel guarantees in backlist sales and reprints.)
The women, particularly the young ones, are even more nebulous figures, as usual tending to be passive commentators while the men get the lion’s share of both talk and action. (Could Rebeck have studied playwriting with Phyllis Schlafly?) We learn more about Sophie’s grandfather, who died in the 1930s, then we ever discover about her; the son’s lover (Betsy Aidem) is vaguer still, a smiling, one-woman support group, with an unexplained job from which she can apparently take infinite time off. Even the antique dealer is presented as though his brother’s characterization of him—”you sit in your little shop all day dusting things off”—were the objective truth, though anyone who knows New England shopkeepers knows that they’re the most maddeningly gregarious people in the world, with lots of time off for socializing between the tourist weekends. But almost everywhere you poke at it, the play fails to ring true, and its creaking glide from story to story, from one clench-jawed face-off to the next, suggests the highway patrol’s nightly collision report rather than drama, where a sequence of events is generally meant to have some cumulative effect. In the central father-son set-to, Rebeck has even outdone Broadway in stupidity, by having novelist and actor debate the value of theater in terms more moronically ill-informed than those bandied about last year in David Hirson’s Wrong Mountain. But the dropping of famous names, coupled with glib praise or glibber put-downs, is as much window dressing here as the occupation of writer or the Nobel Prize—just a gossipy way to garnish up a tenuous string of scenes that would hold no interest if set in the home of, say, a storm-window salesman and his wife.
The mention of storm windows reminds me that Andrew Jackness’s set, though attractive, is laden with translucent sliding screens, which Sher’s otherwise skillful staging uses heavily for slow fades and other “poetic” effects that hardly seem apt to the perpetual snarl and kvetch of Rebeck’s writing. As with his enormously effective production of Granville Barker’s Waste last spring—thornier but far more rewarding material—his touch seems to vary in quality with the actor’s gifts and experience. Brian Murray, thoroughly Americanized and purged of all mannerism, gives a marvelously shaded rendering of the old novelist as a sort of moderate Norman Mailer—not that such a thing would be imaginable in real life. Reed Birney, cast yet again as the sensitive, peace-loving soul, gives this one a fervor and a fastidious dignity quite different from the last four or five. Most enchanting of all, to no one’s surprise, is Marian Seldes, whose quiet lilting of a phrase can trigger explosions of laughter where a more conventionally raucous reading wouldn’t raise a snicker. For the novelist’s wife in this play she has found a way of taking back her ornate hand gestures while she makes them (as if deconstructing her performance last spring as Mrs. Pampinelli in The Torch-Bearers), and she appears to have inherited, or studied, Bert Lahr’s gift for making you scream with laughter by delivering a line while staring vacantly upstage. I suspect I would like the evening a good deal better if Seldes were playing all the female roles. Certainly her younger women colleagues, tackling the most problematic characters, have come out of the struggle with disappointing results: Lacey adds an awkward distanced feeling to the secretary’s halting language and passive-aggressive jumpiness; Aidem, barely offered more than one note to play, tends to pitch even her most intimate scenes as if addressing a public meeting. But both women’s troubles may stem in part from James Colby, who plays the elder son with a lot of articulate fire and fury, but with absolutely no center, so that even his most flamboyant tantrums seem to vanish from the memory as he delivers them.
Nothing in The Butterfly Collection, however, vanishes more rapidly than Straight as a Line. Luis Alfaro’s brief (75 minutes) two-hander seems to last years, even decades, while you watch it; once out of the theater, it vanishes faster than a stain in a TV detergent commercial. The painful explanation is that there was no play there to begin with. A mother, an ex-prostitute who is now a Las Vegas casino hostess, rescues her HIV-positive son—also a former prostitute—from a thoroughly unconvincing suicide attempt, and takes him back to Vegas, where she nurses him, when not making change for the slot-machine players, until he dies. This is not a story, not a drama, and, regrettably, not new in any respect. In his first few scenes—there are 17 all told—Alfaro does try to pump some fresh air into the subject by giving his characters brash, shame-free, comic things to say about sex, disease, and death. (Told her son is positive, the mother says, “Well, it sounds better than being negative.”)
But the brashness goes nowhere, because the characters have no relationship beyond the biological, and the situation virtually guarantees that the only one they can develop is all too familiar from a million tearjerkers. Accordingly, Alfaro and his director, Jon Lawrence Rivera, try to cover the inevitable trope with what can only be called gadgetry: For no particular reason, the characters are made British and then cast with Asian American actors, which fatally cramps Natsuko Ohama’s style, since her voice, already pinched and meager, nearly disappears under the extra burden of East End dipthongs. James Sie, as her son, generally does better, but also lets the pointless accent slide more often. Alfaro writes scenes as Laugh-In-style gag moments or fills the mother’s speeches with Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce hype; Rivera plays artsy tricks with lighting effects, music, and nudity. Everything is an attempted piece of sleight of hand, including the title, which turns out to allude to the mother’s posture rather than the son’s sexual preference. But there’s nothing underneath all the fancy business except a picture of something you’ve already experienced elsewhere; it’s like being served a cardboard cutout of a veal chop, drenched in an elaborate sauce.