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Only Disconnect

For The Dazzle's Challenging Tale of Alienation, Rep Stage Makes it all Come Together

Pack Rats: As legendary disposophobics the Collyer Brothers, Bill Largess (left) and Bruce Nelson stockpile a couple of admirable performances.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 11/5/2003

The Dazzle

Richard Greenberg

On March 22, 1947, New York police got a tip on a dead body in an old Harlem mansion. The cops eventually found two bodies--once they waded through the 136 tons of junk jammed into every corner of the crumbling 12-room brownstone. The first corpse, Langley Collyer, was buried alive by his own collection of clutter, suffocated when he tripped one of dozens of booby traps designed to thwart invaders. He was apparently killed en route to feeding his blind and paralyzed older brother Homer, who died several days later, starving, of a heart attack. It took the city three weeks to gut the mansion's contents, discovering amid the rubbish 14 grand pianos in various states of deconstruction, hundreds of thousands of newspapers, human medical specimens in glass jars, and the chassis of a Model-T Ford.

The Collyer brothers and their legendary disposophobia (that's the clinical term for compulsive hoarding, also known as Collyer Brothers Syndrome) are the subject of Richard Greenberg's 2002 play The Dazzle, which receives its area premiere this month at Howard Community College's Rep Stage. Greenberg, 45, a Tony award winning writer with two shows running concurrently on Broadway, is the hot playwright of the moment. It's easy to see why. The Dazzle is gorgeously written and very funny, a sharp and sensitive portrayal of human nuttiness that neither condescends to nor sentimentalizes its subjects. Despite only one truly brilliant performance, the production helmed by director Kasi Campbell is a success, and sure to be a highlight of this year's local theater season.

The play is about disconnection, and it begins just as things are falling apart. It's the early 1900s, and Langley (Bruce Nelson) and Homer Collyer (Bill Largess) are gentlemen of privilege living in wealthy, white Harlem. Homer has recently quit his law practice to manage the musical career of his increasingly unreliable younger brother. The Collyers return home from one of Langley's piano recitals--Richard Montgomery's parlor set is a sumptuously perfect mix of bric-a-brac and shabby gentility--trailed by Milly (Cheryl Resor), a rich socialite who's hot for Langley. Homer is at first scornful of Milly's designs on his brother but eventually recognizes that only her money can save them from penury. For her part, Milly believes only she can keep the reclusive Collyers from cutting themselves off entirely from the world.

Langley is oblivious to both. He's only interested in things, forever digressing into rapturous contemplation of the sensuous world. He can't bear to rush his sensory experiences, which is bad for his career: He refuses, for example, to play the "Minute Waltz" in under 45 minutes. Langley does find Milly transfixing, but no moreso than a loose thread in an armchair. As stubborn as he is sensitive, Langley will resist Homer and Milly's plans to keep him connected to humanity, and ultimately threaten their chances of connecting with each other.

It could be heavy stuff, but Greenberg's buoyant words and Campbell's nimble direction keep the material from being weighed down by its themes--and by the mountains of junk increasingly crowding the stage. In his talent for epigrams, the playwright is a direct descendant of Wilde and Shaw, and no less brilliant in dry wit. But it's his style that sets Greenberg apart. His language is hyper-realistic; the dialogue has the halting, fragmentary character of human speech but is inflamed with exuberance and often soars into elevated eloquence. Langley's character gets most of these moments of sustained poetry, as when he describes the pleasure of observing businessmen from his window: "As they approach their own houses, the day of business behind them--whiskey waiting--I've seen that through the window . . . roasts of beef--and oh--well--children-- and as they walk--stride--almost skip--their marvelous chins goosing butterflies --it's a kind of unleafing of the day."

Milly is as mesmerized by Nelson's tour de force performance as we are. "Oh, it's so lovely. . . . You disconnect everything!"

But Langley isn't performing for Milly, only for himself. It is a testament to Nelson's remarkable acting that he can coax charm and empathy from a character so helplessly self-absorbed. Still, Nelson upstages his fellow actors in nearly every scene. (This is partly the play's fault, since Langley Collyer rarely gives focus to anyone other than himself.) Resor, as Milly, matches Nelson's energy, though her chirpy characterization somewhat lacks variety. Largess' Homer is disappointing; his performance is as artificial as is his first-act toupee. Largess does hit his stride in the second act, when he's aged and ailing and no longer willing to indulge his younger brother's illness. In his resignation he finally becomes human, and more endearing for his humanity.

Greenberg's attempt to fasten a conventionally climactic ending to his wonderfully odd script doesn't quite stick, and pushes even Nelson's nuanced performance to the edge of mawkishness. But this is a rare flaw in a play--and production--that provides many more moments of pure dazzle.

Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, (410) 772-4900. Tickets $10-$22.

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