Saturday, November 25, 2006

For the story of two brothers consumed by debris, The Dazzle is a surprisingly clever and delightful play

In March 1947, police entered the Harlem mansion of Homer and Langley Collyer to investigate reports of a dead body in the home. What they found was the accumulated detritus of decades of compulsive hoarding, a decaying house rigged with a series of booby traps, and the body of Homer Collyer, apparently dead of starvation. It took two weeks and the removal of 136 tonnes of junk to uncover the body of his brother, Langley, who had been asphyxiated when one of his own booby traps had crushed him.

This fascinating story provides the foundation for Sage Theatre’s current production of The Dazzle by Richard Greenberg. In The Dazzle, the younger brother, Langley (Frank Zotter), is a concert pianist afflicted with autism and deeply consumed by compulsive behaviour, while Homer (Duval Lang) is a retired admiralty lawyer, now preoccupied with the responsibilities of caring for his increasingly self-absorbed brother. “I am my brother’s accountant” he explains to Milly (Chantal Perron), the socialite and hanger-on who has romantic designs on Langley. And indeed he does play the role of accountant to Langley, not merely in matters financial, but more importantly in matters of social contact.

You are drawn into the world of the Collyers immediately upon entering the intimate theatre. You walk past walls festooned in old newspapers before you enter and cross the stage to your seat, a stage which is dominated by a series of towering bookshelves filled with wheels and cogs and brick-a-brac, all uniformly grey. A pair of tattered armchairs composes the remainder of the furniture. The set suggests a faded aristocracy, and foreshadows the increasingly claustrophobic environment which presages the fated tragedy.

The Dazzle is ultimately a tragedy, in which the tragedy lays not so much in the inevitable demise of the brothers, as it does in the heartbreaking realization that the Collyers were not as content to be insulated from the world as they appeared, that they, in their way, craved social contact which they were never quite able to fulfill. But far from being melancholy, The Dazzle is actually a witty, sparkling, and quite delightful drawing room piece. The clever repartee among Homer, Langley and Milly is sharp and effervescent. These are people who delight in wordplay, who appreciate and relish the clever twisting of a phrase, who excel at linguistic sparring.

In the first act of The Dazzle, Langley is an eccentric but supremely talented pianist, much sought by society. He is completely incapable of understanding the intricacies of social convention and human emotion. At one point he tells Homer “I really must remember to tell you that I love you”. A textbook autistic, he understands the concept that others have emotions, but as the actuality of emotion is utterly foreign to him, he dismisses it as an oddity of others that he must grudgingly consider. Instead, he is acutely hypersensitive to all senses, and is drawn into obsessive fascination with objects, his “duffle”, which, aside from his music, provides his only meaning in life.

Homer, whom we initially see as a brittle controller, gradually reveals himself as the truly tragic figure, the man who has given up his career to care for his brother and who craves life, any sort of life. He is resigned to the role of voyeur, but his need for human interaction is so great that he invents an elaborate pretext to bring excitement into the Collyer house. Milly is the catalyst for these machinations; she provides the sparkling glimpse of the life that Homer so desperately craves, and she is the window to the world that eludes these brothers. Ultimately though, the brothers’ dependence upon each other proves more powerful than any lure the outside world can offer.

Sage Theatre is quickly becoming synonymous with intimate theatre that is provocative and not easily dismissed. While the previous production of Trainspotting was gritty and raw and addressed the addictions of a subculture of society, The Dazzle takes the premise of desperate and stifling interdependence and narrows the focus to the minutiae of two of the most constrained lives imaginable. But even after the world quite literally collapses around them, you will not easily forget the lives of Homer and Langley Collyer.
The Dazzle plays at Sage Theatre until December 2, 2006.


Allison said...

That was a fan-freaking-tabulous review Barb. I felt like I was there. More so, that I could be.

I like the lines you picked out, especially "I really must remember to tell you that I love you", as if he didn't say it then he would surely forget. Nice.

And you used the word "festooned" ! I was going to write something about how everyone needs to work it into a sentence this week, such a good word. I need to get back to doing my word posts.

Back to the play, it definitely does not sound like something you'd forget easily. I wished I got to see more plays. I find they stick with you more than a film most times. I think its the setting, more intimate. Was it the same company that put on Trainspotting that did The Dazzle? I know it was at the same theatre, but just curious.

Great review.

mellowlee said...

Oh Barb! That was a fantastic review!!! I SO want to see it, and the trainspotting play too! I'm glad you enjoyed yourself! Thanks for the review, it was almost like being there it was so well written :)

(The story reminded me of the play Dale went to see about the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy called Grey Gardens)

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Thanks Allison! It really was a compelling play, and I agree that live theatre tends to stay with you longer and more intensely than film does. I think it's the immediacy of live theatre, very much as you were discussing in your television vs internet post; there's one less layer of removal.
I have to admit I thought of you after I wrote "festooned" and then I thought, fascinating story aside, you would enjoy this play for the wordplay alone, which was sparkling.
The actors were different than the ones playing in Trainspotting, but the actor who played Renton actually directed The Dazzle.

Mel, when you move here, I'm going to drag you out to plays with me. (I suspect you won't need that much dragging). I love productions at this theatre; it's tiny and so intimate and the setting (an old pumphouse in an industrial area) is perfect.
I'll have to compare notes with Dale on Grey Gardens.

kees said...

Wow what a powerful story. And it certainly sounds like the play did it justice which I guess is a worry with such a...romantic (?) story. Really wish I could get to see it. Marvelous review, bravo!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

They really did do a fabulous job on this play, Kees. The way that the truths were slowly revealed was all down to fine acting.

Hop on a plane; I'll take you to a performance!

John Mutford said...

I have to order this through Amazon. It sounds fantastic. I'm sure reading it will not compare to actually having seen it, but I hope it's the next best thing.

668 aka neighbour of the beast said...

wow, this sounds really cool. i would have loved to have see the set design for it. (you did a great job reviewing it, but know i want to see it.)

Ben said...

Excellent review Barbara. I can see a job with Village Voice soon.

I like how you described the set. Sometimes reviewers concentrate too much on the script and artist performance and forget that the set is vital in creating a "feel" for the whole of the show.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Brilliant find, John! I think you will enjoy reading it, as it should appeal to your poetic sensibilities. But if you find you need a trip to Calgary in the next week, I'll take you to see it.
Your theatre group may want to produce this.

I loved the set,668, and I thought it was brilliant that you actually had to pass through the set to get to your seat.

Oh Ben, that is so sweet of you! And of course the Village Voice is always keen to cover Calgary plays! The visuals of a play mean a great deal to me as well and I am fascinated by blocking and such.

Dale said...

I'll have to watch the friendly skies for signs of it coming here Barbara. Your review was more than dazzling and highlights perfectly why live theatre is so vital and important. Good going!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Why thanks, Dale! Mel was telling me how it reminded her of a play you had seen - Grey Gardens. I have a feeling you would enjoy the Dazzle as well.

Anonymous said...

Your review did the very thing I think a good review should do, make a person want to see it. I know someone asked you to review the play and they must be ever so pleased that they did.

This might sound kind of dorky and I hope it doesn't but when I read your posts it makes me want to be a better writer. I'm such a plain Jane in my vocabulary. But hey, I used festooned in a sentence this past week and I think I am going to have to find a way to work in detritus and catalyst this week.

John Mutford said...

Don't get me started on my theatre group. They've decided to put off 2 plays that have a grand total of 4 actors combined, only 1 of which is a male part. Spitefully, I didn't even audition. They've got a huge list of people who wanted to take part, and these are the plays they chose. Granted they sounded interesting- "52 Pick Up" was one and I forget the other. Hopefully, I can avoid burning bridges (despite how cranky they made me) and get involved with a future production.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Thank you so much, Toccata. I am honoured and humbled to hear you say that. I hope that I did the play justice.

But you know, I believe that using big words is not necessarily a sign of good writing. Often simplicity is best. Personally I like your writing style.

I did use a more complicated vocabulary in this review because I felt the play called for it, as all the characters indulged in a lot of wordplay. But there is nothing more embarassing than using a word incorrectly (which I have done more times I care to admit).

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Sorry John, we were posting at the same time.

The Dazzle would not be the play for your group to put on then, as it only has three actors, but what was your group thinking, if they had so many people interested in becoming involved? That's such a shame. Personally I can't act my way out of a paper bag, and would be more interested in behind the scenes work, but they really should have picked something to accomodate more people.

Anonymous said...

I remember discovering the thesaurus in grade 7 and wrote an essay with all these incredible sounding words but English being English I was often a little off in the nuances of meaning. All I got for my trouble was the comment, "It's better to use a 5 cent word than a 25 cent word especially when you don't know the meanings, and clearly you don't!"

michelle said...

Walking through the set is the perfect way to get one in the mood, wow, excellent touch.

I have to admit, the psychological intricacies of The Dazzle reminded me of this very compelling rendition of 'night Mother in the round. Although it was aeons ago & I was semi-comatose on cold meds, it was POWERFUL.

Brilliant review, Barbara. You possess da gift.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

That's horrible, Toccata! What ever happened to the idea of encouraging students? Obviously that teacher was in a pissy mood.

Thanks Michelle - I thought it was a touch of genius to walk through the stage. It really did help set the mood and I think it also harkened back to the actual story and the curiousity surrounding the house. We were able to enter this infamous house.
I've not actually seen Night Mother but I have heard it was really powerful.

kees said...

Oooh ace - thanks go to John, I shall order that later

She's Crafty said...

I haven't been to a play in ages. I took my mom to one at UBC, it was Oscar Wilde and if I had any part of my short term memory in tact I could tell you what it was, sadly not going to happen.
Great review.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Kees, perhaps your kitting circle could perform the play, in between scarves. I'd buy tickets!

Thanks Serah! Despite the memory lapse, I'll bet it was an invigorating play. Oscar Wilde is always spot on!

Anonymous said...

Hello there. I was just wondering how you made out today. The news was jam-packed full of the woes in BC that they only gave Calgary a cursory nod saying you were in a deep freeze.

I feel I should mention that that English teacher was an awesome teacher. She gave me a lifelong passion for the reading and devouring of short stories. I suspect that was a comment she would not have given everyone but knew I could take it and work with it.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

That's sweet of you to ask, Toccata. It was bloody cold here, but I made it through unscathed. The cold snap is supposed to end Wednesday. How about you? Did you have to leave the house with all that snow?

That puts a new light on the teacher. She knew you would respond to the challenge.

Anonymous said...

I only had to leave the house to play!

Dale said...

It was sweet of Lee to mention my Grey Gardens review but it pales in comparison to yours. All hail Barbara! Or at least Dale hail Barbara! :-)

Barbara Bruederlin said...

That's the only reason one should leave the house, Toccata.

Thanks for the link, Dale, and for the sweetness! I'm going over to read about Grey Gardens right now.