Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2006
This humble pair of works from the early stages of playwright Mark St. Germain’s career are being given a delightful production by Barrington Stage in a comfortable theatre space carved out of the Berkshire Athenaeum auditorium.
Prior to preparing for this review, I had never heard of the Collyer Brothers – Homer (1881-1947) and Langley (1885-1947) – who were such famous recluses and hoarders that disposophobia, the clinical term for the fear of throwing things away, is colloquially known as Collyer Brothers Syndrome, and has come to be identified more with its obvious result – compulsive hoarding – than its underlying symptom.
The Collyers were real people, who lived, just as the playbill says, in the once-elegant Harlem brownstone at 2078 Fifth Avenue (Fifth and 128th Street) which, upon their almost simultaneous deaths from hunger and malnutrition, was discovered to be filled with 103 tons of garbage and/or “collectibles” – everything from grand pianos and chandeliers to nearly 70,000 newspapers and the skeleton of a horse.
The beginnings of their lives were fairly ordinary. They were descendants of one of New York City’s oldest families. Their father, Dr. Herman L. Collyer, a gynecologist, and their mother Susie Gage Frost, separated in 1909 when their sons were young adults. Both biys had graduated from nearby Columbia University. Homer received a degree in engineering and was an accomplished pianist, and Langley became an admiralty lawyer. (Their skills are reversed in St. Germain’s script and Homer claims to be the naval lawyer while Langley plays the piano.) When Dr. Collyer died in 1923 he left his wife and sons the brownstone and its contents in his will, and when their mother died six years later the brothers inherited everything, a stash which formed the basis of their “collection.” They lived, barricaded in the townhouse which Langley had elaborately booby-trapped, with no electricity, no telephone, and no indoor plumbing, for the rest of their lives. Langley sometimes left the home. Homer, after he became blind in 1933, never did. They became a curiosity in a city filled with eccentrics.
Since no one knew the Collyer Brothers or entered the house while they were alive, St. Germain has written what he describes as a “fanciful speculation” about their lives. In six scenes we watch them bicker and play and justify their choices and their condition.
“Everyone is born with just so much sociability, Langley,” St. Germain has Homer say in scene iii, “So much toleration for the world and those upon it. Over the years this indulgence is worn away; everyday this wall of friendliness and courtesy, trust or affection is chipped away at….I was born with a brittle wall, Langley – very brittle – and so were you. There were holes in it that I could put my fist through since the first day I heard voices on the other side.”
And yet in their reclusivity lies their claim to fame. In their clutter lies their treasure. To the outside world they are who people believe them to be. St. Germain imagines Langley telling Homer that a millionaire (Howard Hughes) and a beautiful actress (Greta Garbo) are begging to come and join the Collyers in their solitude. He brings in a script purported to be from an Irish playwright who wants to immortalize them on the stage, as both St. Germain here and Richard Greenberg in his play “The Dazzle” have subsequently done. Are these offers real or figments of Langley’s imagination – games invented to continually test the boundaries of their self-induced confinement? St. Germain never lets us know.
He has the Collyers play at other games too. They pretend to be the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, making contact between the engine and the spark that fires it, between the heaven and the earth, between fame and everyday anonymity. They do an elaborate vaudeville routine. They talk constantly about the food that never comes, the nourishment that only the outside world can supply, the necessary sustenance they cannot bear to seek and cannot live without.
Director Christopher Innvar plays this all in a lighthearted manner all the more thought-provoking for its frivolity. Robert Zuckerman is a sprightly Langley, and Brian Smiar is enigmatic and darkly humorous as the wheelchair bound and blind (but is he?) Homer. Brian Prather has designed the set, filled with mind-boggling piles of stuff from Jeff Winslow of Wild Sage. One of the best jokes of the evening is when the audience returns after intermission to find the stage nearly bare for Period Piece.
“These things will speak eloquently for us when we’re gone…” St. Germain has Homer tell Langley as the latter reads an amusing and appalling catalog of their inventory. “They will say, ‘The Collyer Brothers thought us valuable enough to save and treat as precious. All of you, on the other hand, all of you who marveled at them, laughed at them, were repulsed by them; all of you who offered your love, your friendship, your touch of the world – all of you were not valuable enough to collect for a cup of afternoon tea.’”
There is a third important character on the stage throughout. Homer’s favorite cat, Christina, who is, literally, a skeleton, although Langley’s inventory enumerates 42 live cats in the house. Christina is a cat of few words, as you might imagine, but she stands as a poignant foreshadowing of the Collyer’s skeletal demise. At one point, hile Langley is off devising another game, Homer tells Christina that he envies her early escape.
After the intermission Zuckerman and Smiar return as Teddy Cantell and Harrison Budds, two modern-day middle-aged actors waiting to be called in to audition for a play they know nothing about, other than that it is a period piece. They have both been in the business in New York City for many years, and are friends, as well as rivals for various roles. They share some war stories of their careers while they wait, but ultimately, when they learn that the roles have already been cast and they are merely being auditioned as understudies, Budds snaps. He empties dozens of headshots out of the wastebasket and rails at the inanity of a business that treats its most important commodity so shabbily.
Just as the Collyers hoard the fame that comes from remaining aloof and mysterious, Budds and Cantell desperately seek the fame that can only be found in the spotlight. They want to be known and seen and recognized and needed as much as the Collyers don’t. And, ironically, in a clever bit of metatheatre, they are auditioning to play Homer and Langley Collyer.
This is Barrington Stage’s first production in Pittsfield, and artistic director Julianne Boyd was given a big hand when she came out to make her curtain speech. She spoke, as Innvar, a long-time member of the BSC artistic family, does in his program notes, about the themes of family, home, and theatre that are ingrained in these two plays as well as in her company’s monumental effort to both find a permanent performance facility while staying “at home” in the Berkshires. A new home in an old home, as it were. So far Pittsfield has given Barrington Stage a very warm welcome, but the honeymoon has barely started. This production proves that even a stressful move hasn’t stunted BSC’s ability to create a theatre space where none existed before, and perform quality theatre within its walls.
The Barrington Stage Company production of The Collyer Brothers at Home and Period Piece runs through June 4 at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, MA. The Collyer Brothers runs about 45 minutes, followed by an intermission, and then Period Piece, which runs about 30 minutes. Both shows are suitable for all ages, but children under 8 or 10 will find them confusing and/or boring. Call the box office 413-528-8888 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006