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The Butterfly Collection
By Elyse Sommer
Margaret''s skills as the family peace keeper have been honed through many years of living with three clashing artistic temperaments. Paul's overarching celebrity and lack of paternal warmth have made Ethan chronically infuriated at his father, and a narcissistic chip off the old block. His brother Frank (a sensitive and dimensioned portrayal by Reed Birney) is more genial but the crippling effect of the paternal coldness are evident in his inability to form any relationships except with the objects d'art he collects as an antiques dealer.
A dominating father's troubled relationship with two sons. That father played by Brian Murray (marvelously so), who, not too many seasons ago portrayed the egotistical, monster patriarch of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (our review). The setting, like the O'Neill's summer home, is Connecticut.
For all the O'Neill connections that spring to mind, Theresa Rebeck's new play, The Butterfly Collection, lacks the craftsmanship and emotional muscle of that great play, never rising above rather glib interpersonal complications wrapped in dialogue peppered with lots of trendily amusing allusions to the book and theatrical world's glitteratti. (e.g. Paul's attack on playwrights -- "Mamet is a watered down Pinter. Pinter is a watered down Becket -- and Becket was a novelist!" ). The long simmering tensions in this Connecticut family are brought to a boil by Paul's writer's block to beat all writers' blocks (his latest novel is some ten years overdue!) reaching a crisis point and dovetailing with Ethan's midlife career crisis.
To further complicate matters there are two outsiders -- Paul's new personal assistant Sophie (Maggie Lacey) who becomes the object of Ethan's mixed-up and insistent romantic attentions and, not surprisingly, Paul's; Ethan's girl friend Laurie (Betsy Aidem) who brings out a new side to the easy going Frank.
The play's backbone is the feisty and not nearly as ditzy as she appears Margaret (seems that like his current personal assistants, she long ago assisted with a lot more than typing). As played by Marian Seldes, Margaret is easily the most interesting member of this incompatible family and riotously funny. To see her is enough reason to buy a ticket. Fortunately, Ms. Rebeck has also given her the play's best lines. Her recital of Paul's gradual slide from Nobel prize celebrity and creative productivity is exquisitely delivered with pitch-perfect pauses and facial expressions. She elegantly mumbles the "F" word as she blames it all on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Internet. Thanks to Ann Hould-Ward's costumes she also looks smashing.
Maggie Lacey's has the daunting task of trying to give life to a character written more as the playwright's means to an end than a real person. She appears to be modeled on Joyce Maynard, who as a young woman had an affair with J. D. Salinger and recently published a tell-tale memoir about it. In fact the Maynard-Salinger parallel is brought out when Paul, in one of the play's best scenes, viciously attacks Sophie's own writing but still holds onto her services in behalf of his novel.
Sophie's story about the butterfly collection lovingly and carefully assembled by her grandfather and carelessly disposed of by her grandmother after his death also gives the play its title and serves as the device that prompts Ethan to give free rein to his self-indulgent competitiveness with his equally self-indulgent father.
As with his elegant staging of Waste (our review), Director Bartlett Sher once again proves himself a classy director. With the help of an accomplished design team, he has overcome the size constraints of the Playwrights Horizon Wilder stage. A series of transparent sliding panels and Christopher Akerlind's lighting deepen and expand the space to shift the action between three different rooms in what is essentially a single unit set. All the director's good work, however, and even Ms. Seldes' wonderful performance, can't overcome this play's overemphasis on artsy symbolism and dramaturgy that could use some of the careful attention Sophie's grandfather lavished on his butterfly collection.