Theater archives

Pairing It Down


I would love to pretend that the Roundabout has produced Richard Greenberg’s The Dazzle solely as a response to my last review of their work—it’s always nice to claim credit for something really good—but the production was scheduled long ago. Besides, the part most worth taking credit for would be Greenberg’s elegantly turned writing, with its wonderfully shimmering mix of passion and philosophic epigram. All I can do is use the occasion for a brief critical sermon: If the Roundabout can do a play this good, and do it this well, why can’t they do so more often? Their financial dubieties could easily be overlooked if their artistic track record were only better. One might point out that The Dazzle is by a playwright with whom the theater has an ongoing relationship; it’s staged by a director, David Warren, with whom both author and theater have worked before, and performed by actors better known for their stage ability than for their marketing in the two-dimensional media.

Greenberg’s three-character work is an unhistorical drama based on one of history’s truly peculiar cases—that of the Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, eccentric recluses who died in their Upper East Side home under grotesque circumstances. Greenberg sloughs off the historical facts, which doesn’t matter, since they’re hardly of earth-shattering importance (as opposed to the ones arguably misused in, say, Copenhagen); the only real question is whether the drama he’s created stands up without them. He cheats a little even on that lowered hurdle, but his cheating, like other aspects of his script, is both creative and witty.

The time is around 1904. Langley and Homer are well-off young men. Langley (Reg Rogers) is a classical pianist, gifted enough to have, at the start, a moderately busy concert schedule; waspish, bookish Homer (Peter Frechette) has given up his legal career to manage Langley’s affairs. As he explains to Milly (Francie Swift), a wealthy young woman who has apparently invited herself home with the brothers following a concert, “I am my brother’s.” The last word, when it arrives, is not “keeper”; in this script, the last word of any line is rarely what you expect it to be. But by the time the line ends the opening scene, a keeper may seem just what Langley needs. A creature of moods and obsessions, he perceives life through its trivialities, as a vast accretion of minutiae adding up to an infinitely complex whole—in short, the way a dangerously unbalanced musician might see it: Mozart, or God, is only in the details. Langley, who can fixate on a blue thread or a strand of hair, takes 45 minutes to play Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.” By next year, Homer warns him derisively, he’ll have to play it with an intermission.

Where Langley is flakily fact-fixed, Homer is realistic but jumpy, ingesting words as his brother pours out music, forever rolling thoughts around in his skull while Langley gets lost in monochordal rapture. Whether Homer’s the right person to take care of Langley, whether Langley isn’t in fact taking care of Homer, are questions with which Greenberg teases us—and along with us Milly, the interruptive third party in this crowded twosome, who adores the helpless-seeming, haplessly optimistic Langley while rousing what appear to be alternate waves of hostility and empathy in Homer. Support from Milly’s excruciatingly nouveau-riche family, all of whom she loathes, would secure the brothers’ fiscal future (“I find your money thrilling,” the innocent Langley tells her), but the question of exactly who is plotting to marry whom to whom, and why, displays more than one surprising twist before the evening’s over. Milly’s family turns out to have loathsome aspects even she won’t discuss, and Homer’s schemes have convolutions that make them—well, theatrical. Because the play itself, cunningly, turns out to be a stage equivalent for both Homer’s reading and one of Langley’s performances. A tiny slice of human condition magnified for close contemplation, it’s kept in motion by the characters’ implanting the contrivances of period literature into it. It is what it describes, taking in techniques, stratagems, and themes as the brothers’ house accumulates debris. Under its apparent translucence, it is dense with thought and feeling.

A pity, then, that one should have even tiny quibbles about Greenberg’s period sense —starting with that Chopin waltz, which these cultured brothers would have known to be minute in the sense of “very small” rather than lasting 60 seconds precisely. The world of 1904 knew comic supplements (“funny papers”) but not “comic books,” and the word “neurotic” had not yet entered casual conversation. None of these is exactly a tragic flaw, though one element of David Warren’s sturdy production nearly is: Lawrence Yurman’s between-scenes music, badly amplified by the Gramercy’s crude sound system, belongs to the ragtime-flavored popular wing of the era’s parlor music, and would hardly be allowed in a house where the hypersensitive resident pianist can tell exactly which Christmas caroler outside is singing a quarter-tone flat. On the historical front, there’s also one big issue: The actual Collyer brothers were feeble oldsters when they died in 1947; 1904 and its elegance were long gone. Greenberg’s play faces the gory details, but skips across the decades that brought them on, letting us see two hale and hearty young men waltz into this tragedy of senile anchorites. He’s American enough to know what audiences like.

Warren’s production, in general, is solid rather than subtle. Allen Moyer’s handsome set—the kind of room the whole audience instantly wants to move into—may even be too solid for a play so metaphysically rich; Jeff Croiter’s lights make its accumulating junk piles glow prettily. Partly because mannerisms that hamper him in other parts fit so well here, Rogers slides his large body into the role of Langley with galumphing, honking ease, so that Frechette’s Homer, the latest in his virtually patented line of dapper, angst-ridden antiheroes, sometimes has to push to the behavioral edge in order to get Homer’s ego equal time. Swift, new to me, handles her equivocal role with firm but delicate clarity.

A little delicate clarity would go a long way toward helping The Last 5 Years, which ranks extremely high on my list of evenings I really wanted to like but didn’t. As in his score for Parade, Jason Robert Brown’s songs, which make up the show’s entire text, are full of talent, intelligence, and an almost frenzied urge to find the perfect vocal-music expression for an emotional state, capturing it in transit the way a Bernini sculpture captures a passing gesture. The trouble is that gestures don’t add up dramatically, and 83 minutes of Brown’s songs has exactly the same cumulative effect as a detached series of frozen gestures; their frequent individual beauty doesn’t compensate for the overall feeling of stasis.

Tracing the rise and fall of a marital relationship, the work has another problem in production: It’s really more a sort of pop duo cantata than a theater event, and belongs on the bare stage of a cabaret, with mics in the performers’ hands and the backup band for scenery. Except for two very brief segments, we never see or hear the characters together in Daisy Prince’s production, a visual choice that heightens the show’s feelings of desolation and abandonment, but also makes its self-crossed lovers seem even smaller and lonelier in the big empty space under the Minetta Lane’s proscenium arch. The more production elements Prince throws at the piece, starting with the huge chipped wedding-banquet plate on Beowulf Borrit’s backdrop, the more threadbare and less theatrical it looks. Rowboats track in, beds roll on, books rain from the flies, but they don’t convince us that anything’s happening.

All that is happening, in fact, is that two talented people are taking turns singing some fair-to-excellent songs. Rather than characters, Brown’s Jamie and Cathy have situations—he’s a Jewish novelist from the ‘burbs, she’s a small-town shiksa escaping the mall-rat race. This simultaneously leaves them vague and prevents them from seeming universal. This puts everything squarely on the shoulders of Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz—sturdy, appealing, youthful shoulders, with attractive heads on them, producing strong, pleasant pop voices. The man is the more active (though less sympathetic) figure, and Butz, who outpaces Scott in flamboyance and emotional range, as well as in vocal resilience, easily dominates the evening. (He’ll be Jewish, however, around the time Nat Hentoff replaces Cardinal Egan.) Scott’s very real charms, including a sweet voice and a sly streak of low-key comedy, are almost as badly misused here as in Aida; she’s not inherently one of those pieces of industrial belting equipment with which recent Broadway shows have tended to replace women. She’d have a better chance in a world with better sense—where people could enjoy the quality of work that’s gone into The Last 5 Years without having to pretend that it’s theater.