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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

The Collyer Brothers at Home& Period Piece
By Elyse Sommer

Everyone is born with just so much sociability, Langley. So much toleration for the world and those upon it. Over the years this indulgence is worn away; every day this wall of friendliness and courtesy, trust or affection is chipped at. Some walls are so thick they last people all their lives. Others wear thin with age. I was born with a brittle wall, Langley and so were you.--- Homer Collyer

Collyer Brothers At Home
Brian Smiar as Homer Collyer &Robert Zukerman as Langley Collyer Brian Smiar as Homer Collyer
(Photo: Kevin Sprague)
People born to great wealth and social prestige who end up living as eccentric recluses in their once elegant, now deteriorated mansions have long been the stuff of articles, books and documentaries. One of the strangest of these sagas is that of the Collyer brothers. While the details of their strange ratpack lives and deaths in the family brownstone on upper Fifth Avenue in Harlem have been pretty much forgotten, their names have become synonymous with excessive cluttering and messiness.

With the story of another pair of famous recluses, Edith Bouvier and her daughter "Little Edie" made into a hit musical called The Drowsy Chaperone (see link below), Barrington Stage's mounting of Mark St. Germain's twenty-five-year-old rumination on Homer and Langley Collyer is a timely and fitting production to launch the company's first season away from the Sheffield High school it called home for most of its first twelve years. Undaunted by the fact that its permanent new home in Pittsfield won't be ready until mid-summer, the company's ever resourceful founder and artistic director Julianne Boyd has nevertheless put together a full season of productions staged in various venues around the area.

The Collyer Brothers at Home and its companion one-act, Period Piece, initiate the Stage II season at the Berkshire Athenaeum, more commonly used as the Pittsfield library's auditorium. While clearly the work of a newly emerging playwright and not as dazzling as The Dazzle, Richard Greenberg's 2002 play about the brothers (see link below), these two connected one-acters are particularly apt season openers because they bring together so much of the creative talent that Boyd views as the Barrington Stage family; to be specific:

. . .The only previous staging of St. Germain's playlets was mounted as an Off-Broadway showcase and directed by an up and coming young director named Julianne Boyd.

. . .Brian Smiar and Robert Zukerman, who play Homer Collyer and Langley Collyer, appeared in Barrington Stage's terrific Stage II production of Lee Blessing's Thief River several seasons back.

. . .Christopher Innvar, best known to Barrington Stage audiences as a dashing leading man (The Game , Cyrano de Bergerac) and currently in the Broadway revival of Three Penny Opera, is here making his directing debut.

. . .adding to the timeliness of eccentric recluses on stage, the Grey Garden' book writer and lyricist Michael Korie and composer Scott Frankel are joining the Barrington Stage "family" in July (and at this venue) with Meet Mister Future, part of this summer's new Music Theater Lab

Typical of young playwrights, in 1980 St. Germain was still at a stage where one can recognize the influence of role models -- in he case of The Collyer Brothers at Home Samuel Beckett's presence hovers over the brothers' vaudeville-like personas and the theatrical game playing used to reveal their family history, their dysfunctional but strong bond, and the increasingly excessive oddball collecting -- as in one scene in which they play-act at being the Wright Brothers and another in which they is rework the famous Gallagher and Sheen song and dance duo as Collyer and Collyer).

Smiar and Zuckerman play their parts superbly. Innvar does just fine in keeping their sad-funny shtick moving along. Set designer Brian Prather has brilliantly crammed the tiny stage's set to convey a sense of the tons of collectibles and general disarray that turned the Collyer mansion into a madhouse. The shift to the quite different set for the second piece calls for a special shout-out for the prop movers. None of these assets add up to the depth and richness of the already mentioned The Dazzle, and the theatrical and cultural allusions (likely to be missed by many audience members) don't really substitute for the brilliant word play of the more fully developed Greenberg play.

Speaking of those allusions, St. Germain has obviously updated Period Piece in which Smier and Zuckerman metamorphose into a pair of always auditioning and too rarely cast actors waiting to try out for a play about -- you guessed it, the Collyer Brothers. As the first play seems timely because of the success of the musical Grey Gardens, so Period Piece, which is a riff on the state of the theater generally and musicals in particular, mildly echoes another new musical hit, The Drowsy Chaperone. As in the lead-in play, the performances are excellent as is the directing and staging. If you want to catch this double feature, better plan to do it soon, as it runs only through next weekend.

The Dazzle -- which includes some fascinating background material on the Collyer Brothers
The Game
Thief River
Grey Gardens
The Drowsy Chaperon

Cranwell Resort

Playwright: Mark St. Germain
Director: Christopher Innvar
Cast: Brian Smiar and Robert Zukerman
Set Design: Brian Prather
Costume Design: Guy Lee Bailey
Lighting Designer: D. Benjamin Courtney
Sound Design: Randy Harrison & Matt Kraus
Running Time: Collyer Brother, 50 minutes; Period Piece, 30 minutes.
Barrington Stage Stage II -- The Berkshire Athenaeum 1 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield
From May 18 -- June 4, 2006
Wed to Sun 7:30 pm; Sun, 3pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on May 28th matinee performance
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