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Wasted Potential 

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The Dazzle

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

On March 21, 1947, police arrived at a Harlem mansion after getting a tip from a neighbor saying there was "a dead man on the premises." When the cops broke in--the windows had been boarded up years before, the entrances blocked with iron bars--they found the decomposing bodies of brothers Homer and Langley Collyer. The house was packed from floor to ceiling with some 136 tons of junk: 3,000 books, six tons of newspapers, hundreds of phone books, 14 grand pianos, an antiquated X-ray machine, a car chassis. The house had been booby-trapped to foil intruders, and Langley died when an enormous pile of junk fell on him. Homer, blind and paralyzed, died of starvation a mere ten feet away.

Born into luxury in the late 19th century, the Collyer brothers were the sons of a prominent Manhattan doctor. Langley earned a degree in engineering while Homer practiced as an admiralty lawyer. But in 1909 Dr. Collyer abandoned his family, and when his wife died and the brothers were left alone in the family mansion, they grew increasingly reclusive. As their neighborhood began to decline, they transformed their home into a kind of fort, cutting off their gas, electricity, and water, heating the house with kerosene lamps, and hauling water from a park four blocks away. When Homer somehow became paralyzed and blind in 1933, Langley threw himself into caring for his brother, feeding him a diet of black bread, peanut butter, and 100 oranges a week. In a tenderly obsessive gesture, he also began stockpiling newspapers so that Homer would have something to read once he was cured.

Little else was known of the "hermits of Harlem" until their bodies were discovered 14 years later. But the facts, though sketchy, make it clear that something extraordinary happened to these men--and perhaps even more extraordinary things happened between them. Moreover, their lives suggest a succinct metaphor for the social upheavals of the early 20th century, as the last vestiges of a self-absorbed American aristocracy crumbled while new forms of urban life took root.

Rarely has history handed a playwright a story with greater potential. And rarely has such potential been more foolishly squandered than in Richard Greenberg's The Dazzle. With an adaptation of Strindberg on Broadway, a Pulitzer nomination, and a handful of other awards, Greenberg is rapidly becoming a big deal. But he seems to have willfully wasted this opportunity: as he writes in the introduction to the play, "The Dazzle is based on the lives of the Collyer brothers, about whom I know almost nothing." And in a Stagebill interview he remarked, "I think someone has written a book [about the Collyer brothers] but I never got my hands on that. The few facts I learned were so suggestive that I didn't need to find out any more about them." Asked what drew him to the story, he said, "I know what it is to mess up a room. That seemed like a natural theme."

Setting aside questions about how messing up a room can constitute a dramatic theme, it's clear that Greenberg has little interest in discovering--or even imagining--what might have happened to the Collyers. Like many contemporary playwrights, he sets up a quirky situation without letting much of anything transpire, content to demonstrate his protagonists' curious mental states rather than dramatize the events that produced them--or that lead them further into paranoid delusions. He shows even less interest in the broader psychological or social implications of their story.

Greenberg does have a knack for creating characters in bold strokes, however. The Dazzle opens with the brothers returning home from a piano recital Langley's just given. He's disgusted with his performance because his foot slipped off the sustain pedal on the final chord, cutting it short, and plants himself at one of his two grand pianos--the other must be kept out of tune, he "explains"--to demonstrate the minimum time the chord should have been held. He then lets the chord ring for a seeming eternity, well beyond the time when the sound has ceased to be audible. With the brothers is Milly Ashmore, a dissipated, filthy rich society girl hoping to lounge her way into Langley's seemingly impenetrable heart. But Homer--who like his brother restates every thought a half dozen times in a never ending quest for accuracy--appears intent on keeping her in a state of confusion. "Can I get you anything?" he asks her. "A comic book? The Koran?"

In about five minutes Greenberg creates a scenario ripe with tension. And for a time the revelation of the Collyers' profound eccentricities is provocative in itself, as Langley obsesses over details--he's captivated by a blue thread in a piece of fabric across the room--and Homer stalks about like some menacing guardian. But after 20 minutes or so one longs for a bit of plot, for some engine to drive the characters forward, for some sort of stakes. With no real foil--the play essentially eliminates outside society--the three are left to dally and indulge their idiosyncrasies. Greenberg tries to give the play some urgency by having Homer plead with his brother to maintain his recital schedule since they're rapidly running out of money (a claim later revealed to be false). And he suggests a romance between Langley and Milly, which Homer opposes, then unaccountably promotes. But mostly the characters simply hold forth in scene after scene in their trifling, self-obsessed ways.

Specimens in a diorama rather than people caught up in one another's lives, these three cling together for no discernible reason. Homer in particular has no clear relationship with his brother--in fact he does little but skulk around the house in a smoking jacket. Yet he purports to be Langley's "prime mover," the one who keeps him from degenerating into psychic paralysis. It's a claim dramatized only late in the play, when Homer (who's able-bodied until the final scene) cares for his brother as if he were a child.

At the end of the nearly static first act, Greenberg makes a desperate feint at action: it's Langley and Milly's wedding day, and the preternaturally stony Langley is suddenly a bundle of feverish anxiety. Yet why would a man who's maintained a perfectly flat affect for the past few months now break into an addled quaver over a woman he likens to a tranquil, uninteresting body of water? When he deserts her at the altar, the play's first half comes to a nonsensical conclusion.

In his greatest tactical error, Greenberg opens the second act seemingly 20 years later. The house is now packed with junk, the windows are boarded up, and Langley has become a neurasthenic paranoid catered to by his despondent brother. A thousand interesting things must have happened in the interim, but we're dealt only the shock of seeing characters transformed by a couple decades of seclusion--and shocks are fleeting by nature. Avoiding the hard work of imagining how these characters must have developed, the playwright opts for the instantaneous transformation of a sensational news story. Predictably, the brothers spend most of the second act revealing their increased squirreliness. And the now homeless Milly, made up like a 1,000-year-old mummy, conveniently reappears to describe her cartoonish life of abuse and despair. Clutching at straws to keep his audience awake, Greenberg should have come up with a story instead.

David Cromer's warm staging gives the play as much humanity as possible. But he and his supremely skilled cast can do little to rescue The Dazzle from its static self-absorption. As Milly, Susan Bennett is a captivating conundrum of jejune ambition, and David Pasquesi gives the mysterious Homer just the right air of creepy intellectualism. But it's Tracy Letts as Langley who turns in the evening's sharpest, most deeply felt performance. Whether stone-faced in the first act or manic in the second, Letts never makes an obvious choice, evoking a dozen psychological layers.

But all the company's intelligence can't make The Dazzle matter. Like a good number of his fellow playwrights, Greenberg can't seem to distinguish between what's curious and what's dramatic. And like his characters, he's enclosed himself in a tiny world of his own invention, never asking why it should matter to anyone else.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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