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.