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A CurtainUp Review
The Collection & A Kind of Alaska

Shall I tell her lies or the truth? — Pauline, the sister of the suddenly re-awakened to life Deborah in A Kind of Alaska

Both —-Hornby, Pauline's ex-husband and the doctor who has cared for her since she entered her comatose state.

You knew she was married. . .why did you find it necessary. . .to do that? —James in The Collection

She must have known she was married, too. Why did she feel it necessary. . .to do that?
—Bill, responding to James though what his "that " involved is part of this play's cat and mouse game.

I can sum up none of my plays. I can describe none of them, except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did. — Harold Pinter, 1971
The Collection
Matt McGrath and Darren Pettie in The Collection
(Photo: Ari Mintz)
Over the course of a 50-year career as a writer, actor and director, Harold Pinter produced more than two dozen original stage plays. Many were short one-acts and thus frequently paired as double bills. Sometimes these pairings are based on similarities. Sometimes, as is the case at the Atlantic Theater, long a Pinter devotee, the idea is to showcase the playwright's work at different times. Their current double bill, begins with the very Pinteresque The Collection written in 1961 and concludes with the shorter, more atypical A Kind of Alaska written in 1983.

Except that both plays defy a neat summary as to their exact meaning, they have little in common which includes the scenery. Well, I should backtrack here. They do have this in common: Both are expertly directed by Karen Kohlhaas, smartly staged and given Pinter-perfect interpretions by five actors who know how to make those by now well known Pinter pauses speak volumes.

The first and longer piece, The Collection, plays out on a handsome side-by-side set — on one side is an elegantly furnished Belgravia townhouse, on the other a more sleekly modern but equally upscale apartment. The Belgravia house accouterments include a raised up high, recessed shelf filled with blue and white pots which according to one of the characters. "cost at least fifteen hundred a piece" Except for their being there and that observation, Pinter leaves it up to you to figure out any deep meaning to his using this for the play's title.

The scenic prop that immediately establishes the sense of menace that permeates so much of Pinter's work, is a two-dimensional London telephone booth raised above the floor and inside which a shadowy figure is seen. The phone call made by the man in the booth sets off a series of back and forth visits between the two apartments. It seems that the caller is James (Darren Pettie), a man who think that Stella (Rebecca Henderson) his wife and partner in a dress designing company has had a fling with Bill (Matt McGrath), during a business trip. Bill, also a dress designer, seems an unlikely adulterer — at least with a woman, since he's living in the Belgravia house in an obviously homosexual relationship with Harry (Larry Bryggman), a prosperous, older man.

It doesn't take more than a few of those potent pauses and snippets of dialogue to make us realize that both these relationships are fraught with tensions that seem to be waiting for the did-they or didn't-they infidelities to set some sort of violence in motion. Actually, nothing particularly explosive happens but once James connects with Bill and follows up on his announcement that he's coming over a series of conversations about potential infidelities among two couples follows. As James visits Bill, so Bill's partner Harry, visits Stella and it's his cynical realism about his relationship with Bill and James's with Setlla that brings The Collection to a finale which, like so many Pinter play leaves you to figure out not only who did what, but who's going to be the one in the one-up position in each relationship.
A Kind of Alaska
Lisa Emery and Larry Bryggman in A Kind of Alaska
(Photo: Ari Mintz)
A Kind of Alaska (1982), is an interesting partner in that, unlike most of Pinter's plays it is admittedly and specifically inspired by Oliver Sacks's seminal book, Awakenings. Unlike the memorable film starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro, this short piece focuses on a single patient, Deborah (Lisa Emery), who unlike the Awakenings patients has been in a completely comatose state for 29 years. On awakening she still thinks of herself as a 16-year-old and the plot, if you can call it that , entails her gradual understanding of what has happened to her and the world around her. This is not really a medical drama, as much as a medical situation which Pinter has developed into a riveting, heartbreaking character portrait. It's a portrait that's likely to prompt reflections common to all of us on aging, the way time flies by and our regrets about not have spent it fulfillingly.

More than anything, A Kind of Alaska is a gift to the actress playing this modern day Sleeping Beauty, and Lisa Emery takes that gift and makes the most of it. She gets all the way inside that painfully confused, middle-aged woman whose mind is still that of a sixteen-year-old. When she at one point has a sever Parkinson type tremor attack she does so with such realism that it's frightening to watch.

While Deborah's devoted sister (Henderson now looking quite different than she did in the curtain raiser) and her ex-husband (Bryggman again) who has been Debora's doctor are there to try to ease her re-entry into the world of the living, this is Emery's show and she's magnificent. Kohlhaas again expertly direct , though it would have been a good idea for her to see to it that Lisa Emery's hair was at least a bit more stringy and unkempt.

As The Collection is an easily accessible example of the Pinter style so A Kind of Alaska is a sensitive, almost poetic a playlet. Neither has quite the enduring power of longer plays like The Homecoming, The Caretaker and Betrayal but together they make for an intriging matchup that can be savored as a beautifully acted and staged artifact from the Pinter catalogue.

For more about Harold Pinter's life and work and link to other plays we've reviewed, check out our Pinter Backgrounder.

The Collection (1961& A Kind of Alaska (1982)
Two one-act plays by Harold Pinter
Directed by Karen Kohlhaas
Cast: Larry Bryggman (Harry/Doctor), Matt McGrath, (Bill) Lisa Emery (Deborah}, Rebecca Henderson (Stella/Pauline) and Darren Pettie (James)
Sets: Walt Spangler
Costumes: Bobby Frederick Tilley II
Lights: Jason Lyons
Sound Obedia Eaves
Fight consultant: Rick Sordelet
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Stage Manager: David H. Lurie
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, including 1 intermission (The Collection runs 1 hour, A Kind of Alaska approx 40 minutes)
Atlantic Theater at its temporary hone, Classic Stage 136 E. 13th Street.
From 11/03/10; opening 11/22/10; closing 12/19/10.
Tuesday-Saturday at 8pm, with Wednesday and Saturday performances at 2pm and Sunday performances at 3pm.
Tickets $65, $35 for members
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at Nov. 18th press preview
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