It’s a dangerous thing to produce a show that’s already its own best metaphor. Critics, those bums, are always ready to pounce. So perhaps at some point in the process, when the ironies were closing in tight, the makers of The Collector — based on the John Fowles novel — should have raised the white flag. There are several problems buried deep in the project’s structure: Mark Healy’s by-the-numbers 1998 adaptation slices away any of Fowles’s literary innovations; the original material fights dramatization at every step. But it’s the piece’s accidental lurch into “immersive theater” territory that’s the serious trouble. Fowles’s plot revolves around a psychotic butterfly collector who stalks, then imprisons his beloved in a cellar. He promises her that he’ll only hold her for a given time, and then he never…lets…her…go. Unfortunately for audiences, that’s exactly the experience of a theatergoer in 59E59’s microscopic Theater C. Free us, I scribbled in my notebook sometime in that two and a half hours. Send help.
In 1963, when Fowles wrote The Collector, we weren’t so glutted on this particular brand of nastiness and threat. But his story of Frederick Clegg (Matt de Rogatis) and his abduction of the middle-class art student Miranda Grey (Jillian Geurts) triggered an unstopping avalanche of such thrillers. So influential was Fowles’s novel that now the “girl in a basement” formula features in every other Law & Order episode; serial killers have cited it as an inspiration. The book is remarkable for its inventive language, its shifts in perspective. But when Healy adapted it, he was interested only in its plot, the one element that has become totally overfamiliar. Healy’s The Collector is therefore a limp string of scenes: Frederick tries to get Miranda to love him, she lashes out; she tries to get away, he foils her. Director Lisa Milinazzo places us on three sides of Miranda’s little room, so that Fredrick can address the audience directly. The strategy backfires: de Rogatis — his head shaved into an unconvincing tonsure — lacks the necessary charisma, losing command in the show’s first moments. Far more competent is the glowing Geurts, who does more with her shaky material and surrounding production. Of course, she may be having her own immersive experience. She’s not the first actress to be trapped like this. Thank god this time, she’ll make it out.
Directed by Lisa Milinazzo
59 East 59th Street
Through November 13