Garbage House Beautiful

The Jungle uncovers Harlem pack rats in Richard Greenberg play

We've all been there. You let the newspapers pile up, you neglect the dirty dishes, you let the clutter get out of hand. Next thing you know, you're entombed in 136 tons of garbage and burrowing through your house via a system of intricate tunnels. Damn. I hate it when that happens.

So it went for Homer and Langley Collyer, reclusive weirdo brothers who holed up in their Harlem mansion for a couple of decades until they were found dead in 1947 amid junk that included 14 grand pianos, an array of weaponry, and the chassis of a Model T Ford. From this fecund source material, Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Greenberg has wrought The Dazzle, currently playing at the Jungle Theater under the direction of Bain Boehlke.

"After the fireworks, let's have a snack. I've got some Fig Newtons underneath the July 8, 1911 issue of the New York Times": The cast of  'The Dazzle'
Ann Marsden
"After the fireworks, let's have a snack. I've got some Fig Newtons underneath the July 8, 1911 issue of the New York Times": The cast of 'The Dazzle'

The play's initial portrait is that of turn-of-the-(previous) century Yankee eccentricity; Langley, a talented pianist, belabors his art with his obsession over pitch, while brother Homer is his fussy, bitchy business manager and accountant. The triangle's third point is Milly, an ingénue and heiress possessing cash the Collyers ostensibly lack, as well as a sexual magnetism over the brothers to compensate for her vapidity.

And so it seemed we were in for a somewhat routine character study. Stephen D'Ambrose plays Homer in Act 1 as a pissy detail man, vinegary and light on his feet, disdainful of Milly and protective of Langley. D'Ambrose and Phil Kilbourne (as Langley) share a couple of knowing fraternal glances in these early scenes that go miles toward cementing the legitimacy of the craziness to come. Charity Jones's Milly, in the early going, is stuck being the creature of the world amid the Collyers' budding weirdness, the coquette blithely ignoring blooming dysfunction--until she is expelled from her role as the catalyst that might trigger an entry into the everyday world that Langley is hell-bent on avoiding.

On opening night, when the audience filtered back into the theater for Act 2, there was a palpable buzz of astonishment. Where there had been a desk, there was a wall of boxes. The piano was obscured by stacked junk and a half-assed camp-worthy cooking setup. The hallway was a treacherous pass through a mountain of newspapers. Confronted with this deranged squalor, the emotional tenor of the room changed.

Central to The Dazzle is Langley. On the page he's a profound enigma, and in Greenberg's terse script note he admits he knows "almost nothing" about the Collyers. To my mind, this is a gleeful admission. With the freedom thus granted, Kilbourne synthesizes Greenberg's Langley as an über-aesthete who, when asked about a blue thread, sighs, "I suppose that's all we have time to call it," and who observes, "Most smells are actually pleasant if you don't know where they're coming from." In Act 1, Langley argues that his sensibility is not an "ideology," but Kilbourne's deft sense of perpetual amazement subverts this assertion.

The main danger in Act 2, which portrays the brothers' sick embrace of a half-life in which nothing happens (there were echoes of David Cronenberg's 1988 film Dead Ringers, particularly with the art/life intersection of the Jeremy Irons twins sharing the profession of gynecology with the Collyers' father, but let's not dwell on that), is a descent into melodrama. Langley's stunning assertion--"I love our life!"--makes the mind reel, yet Milly's return seems the work of a playwright desperate to dodge the repercussions of a story about stasis.

Then something unexpected happens. D'Ambrose and Jones infuse their performances with bitter irony over their advancing years (this play moves through decades like water) and forge a convincing connection and sense of humor over their plight. This is a production that charms, then startles, then moves its audience. There were groans and sighs of sympathy and dismay in the audience on opening night--as well as an imaginative bond with a pair of brothers who lost their lives in slavery to "things in themselves."

 
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