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A CurtainUp Review

By Laura Hitchcock

Patrick Richwood and Ed F. Martin (Photo: Catherine Springer)
What is it about the warped lives and tragic deaths of Manhattan's Collyer Brothers that has inspired artistic interpretation? Marcia Davenport wrote a novel about the Collyears, My Brother's Keeper. The brothers also inspired Richard Greenberg to write The Dazzle.

In the world premiere of his play Clutter Mark Saltzman reveals his slant in the first scene when two policemen, Sgt. Reilly Dolan and his brother Patrolman Kevin Dolan, find Homer Collyer's body among mountains of rubble in the Collyers' upper Fifth Avenue home. When Kevin asks his brother, "Why were they like that?" Reilly replies, "Why is anyone like that?"

Saltzman attempts to find his way through the accumulated clutter of the lives of the Collyer brothers by scrutinizing the relationship of the Dolan brothers. Kevin, a POW in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, is high strung and easily distraught, especially during forays to the Collyer Brothers house. Reilly, sidelined from the War by an old injury, is very much in command. He's gotten Kevin a job and now urges him to find a girlfriend. Their scenes are included in the ongoing investigation into the death of Homer Collyer, who was found in his mansion after a mysterious phone tip. Brother Langley is missing and is the prime suspect.

Saltzman's tightly structured, well-made play alternates the Dolans' investigation with scenes from the Collyers' lives, beginning in 1919 when their father, a doctor, leaves home. Langley is a pianist and Homer a lawyer who is entrusted with his more fragile brother's care by the departing father. Homer makes sporadic attempts to carve out a life of his own. He even takes a job with a law firm but quits in outrage when they offer him a raise and a Christmas bonus early, under the impression that his one suit and shabby shoes mean he is poor. He buys the house across the street intending to live there alone but a stroke that blinds and paralyzes him makes him dependent on his brother for the rest of his life.

Saltzman's sure sense of character depicts the more stable Homer as a miser from the get-go and finds the bizarre humor in the brothers' increasing eccentricities. When trying to find a container to take Homer's lunch to work, their clinging to things is displayed in one humorous line delivered as they look around their pack-rat premises: "What can we spare?"

Although he doesn't caricature the brothers and writes about them with compassion, Saltzman doesn't hesitate to use their conflicts to dramatic effect. In the first act Langley attacks Homer as he plans to move out and there's a near-murderous moment in the second act when Langley tells Homer he hates him and, clutching a pillow, creeps close to his blind autocratic brother's bed. Homer apologizes just in time.

The Dolan brothers' trajectory is more schematic. Though they profit from it, it's not clear if they actually see the cautionary lesson in the Collyer tragedy that we do. However, the theory that the Collyers' lives are everyone's taken to extremes comes through.

Rick Sparks has mounted a brilliant production with dynamic assistance from Bradley Kaye's amazing set. By crowding everything to the center of the stage and forcing actors to thread their way through piles painted like newspapers, he creates the claustrophobic clutter in which the brothers lived. Sparks brings an almost choreographic quality, particularly notable in a wonderful duet in which the two superb Character Men tell the police all the rumors they've heard about the Collyers.

Sparks also brings out the warmth in Saltzman's script which empathizes with the appallingly pitiful brothers. Both Ed F. Martin who plays Homer and Patrick Richwood as Langley have the range to age from dapper young men to ghostly remnants with all their obsessive manic traits intact. Martin finds the sorrow and yearning in Homer and Richwood becomes a brave butterfly who never finds his flower.

Jason Field delivers a strong performance as the macho police sergeant and Seamus Dever shines as the shattered aspiring Kevin. Both Character Men, Christopher Fairbanks and Mark Christopher Tracy, find ample scope for their invaluable versatility.

This is one of the strongest new plays The Colony has developed. It will be hard to top this production.

For more factual background on the Collyer Brothers, readers might want to check out the notes at the end of CurtainUp's review of Richard Greenberg's different but also excellent play The Dazzle.

Playwright: Mark Saltzman
Director: Rick Sparks
Cast: Jason Field (Reilly Dolan), Seamus Dever (Kevin Dolan), Ed F. Martin (Homer Collyer), Patrick Richwood (Langley Collyer), Christopher Fairbanks, Mark Christopher Tracy (Character Men)
Set Design: Bradley Kaye
Lighting Design: Jeremy Pivnick Costume Design: A. Jeffrey Schoenberg
Sound Design: Cricket Myers
Wig/Make-Up Design: Joni Rudesill
Running Time: Two hours fifteen minutes with one intermission
Running Dates: February 7-March 7, 2004
Where: The Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third Street, Burbank, Ph: (818) 558-7000
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on February 7.
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