‘Something special. The acting is thrilling’
Watching the UK premiere of this remarkable play by American dramatist, Richard Greenberg, I was occasionally assailed by the feeling that this is what a bumper edition of Steptoe and Son would resemble, if rewritten by Henry James and Ronald Firbank at their most rarefied. Closely related male pair in a tragicomic trap of co-dependency surrounded by proliferating bric-a-brac? The affinities are fortissimo. But it's a social bracket somewhat higher than father-and-son rag-and-bone-men that's occupied here by the play's siblings whom Greenberg has based on the real-life Collyer Brothers, reclusive eccentrics and compulsive hoarders whose dead bodies were found in 1947 under sordid, booby-trapped piles of junk(the 14 grand pianos among the more salubrious curios) in their Fifth Avenue Harlem Brownstone.
Simon Evans's excellent production knows that the piece is essentially a doomed, heart-rending love-story: two abnormally intelligent men, all dressed up at first in white tie and tails but with nowhere to go but down. It's a mischievous touch here that we find the mouldering swank of their residence (designed by Ben Stones) in a venue that is the gutted, somewhat brutalist former St Martins Art School building. The incongruity ends up feeling more apparent real, though; think Dame Ivy Compton-Burton relocated in the controversial domestic arrangements of Quentin Crisp.
No one could accuse Greenberg's unapologetically brilliant script of dumbing down our sense of the brothers' ruthless comic cleverness as they bicker and puzzle, with hilariously off-the-scale elitism, over the philosophical conundrum of ordinary lives. But the consummate acting of Andrew Scott and David Dawson takes you right into the nervous system of a relationship that is also piteously imbalanced.
Loftier, given to autistic “piecemeal intensities” of concentration and snooty hypersensitivity (he winces if an instrument is a sixty-fourth tone flat), Scott's Lang starts off as an acclaimed concert pianist who arrogantly suffers himself to be cossetted by Dawson's Homer, a retired admiralty lawyer beside himself with exasperation at Lang's profligate ways. But Homer underestimates himself when he says “I am my brother's...accountant”. He's desperate for some real sign of loving reciprocation from his awol brother. In what is the performance of the year for me, Dawson's pointy face is never still as Homer masks his hurt in frantically frustrated ironies and acerbities, vacillating between hostility and encouragement of Milly (Joanna Vanderham), the young heiress who adulates Lang and is so desperate to escape her own privileged prison that she fatally tries to steer the epically ineligible former pianist down the aisle.
Marxist criticism would have a destructive field day with The Dazzle. Formalist criticism might jib too at the too-symmetrical way the Milly character is eventually deployed. But the second half is mesmerising as Dawson's Homer, now several miles beyond the end of his tether, gives us a characteristically high-handed report on how they have begun to be stoned by the neighbourhood. He makes your heart bleed as he weeps for the life he might have led. Could he, though? But you feel that, even if his mother had never cruelly offloaded the responsibility for his brother on to him, Homer's sorely tried love would have propelled into the protector-role. Fervently recommended.
Author: Paul Taylor
'The best acting in London'
Found111 is proving to be an inspiring dramatic place. First it housed Tooting Arts’s dynamic production of Barbarians. Now it stages Richard Greenberg’s riveting play. Simon Evans’s production contains some of the best acting in London. He and designer Ben Stones make the eccentric space at the top of the former St Martins School of Art so much their own that this feels like a site-specific drama.
The Dazzle, first seen in New York in 2002, is loosely based on the story of the hoarding Collyer brothers, who lived sequestered in Manhattan, tunnelling through accumulated stuff and eventually dying underneath it. Greenberg reimagines their lives as a dance of death. He does so in an extraordinary conjuring of squalor and dandy dialogue, filth and baroque delicacy. This is so unexpected that it rings true.
Andrew Scott plays a concert pianist. An exquisite perfectionist, he winces as he declares a note is “a 64th tone flat”. He does not like reading as he thinks writing is “like music explaining itself under duress”. He can let nothing go: he edits his speech with the exactness he applies to his playing. Every proclamation becomes an ornate, cantilevered series of refinements. “‘Blue’… I suppose that’s all we have time to call it.” In the central black joke of the play, he spends hours playing the Minute Waltz.
He gets worse. He can spend a day studying a leaf. He “does not believe in waste paper”. No object is discarded; everything is interesting. In the interval the stage fills up: with a lacrosse stick, bricks, baskets, a piece of string, cherished as if it were a pet. The audience is so near the action that we are part of the lumber.
His career is in ruins, eroded by the same obsessional hoarding that has made it impossible for him to live a life outside his apartment. His tempi have slowed intolerably: “he couldn’t bear to let the notes go”. His brother, enslaved by a command of his mother’s that he guard his sibling, becomes his shadow – but nonetheless fascinating for this. He too is a hoarder: of his brother. A rich young woman with a troubled family history enters and leaves their lives. Around their heads float the echoes of opera plots, of Madame Butterfly and La bohème.
Scott carries complete conviction. Petulant, hermetically sealed, fascinating, he never sentimentalises the idea of the autist/artist. In the difficult part of the doomed girl, Joanna Vanderham is very fine: you can see vigour and sense draining out of her. David Dawson is a revelation. As the watchful brother, he gives one of the best performances I have seen on the stage this year. I have admired him six years ago being lightly lethal in The Comedians and more recently as a whirligig of rage in The Duchess of Malfi. I am not surprised he can so fleetly register as sardonic, woeful, manipulative. I am amazed that he can do so while seeming to be so still and watchful. He does not so much act as transmit. I hope to see him transmitting a lot in 2016.
Author: Susannah Clapp
'Deeply Dazzling. Extraordinary, and then some'
‘A pitch-perfect blend of tragi-comic rigour and piercing tenderness’
‘Pure American Gothic; the acting is hypnotic’
There’s a long history of plays, from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens to Edward Bond’s The Pope’s Wedding, about characters who retreat from the world. Richard Greenberg has come up with an extreme example in this play about New York’s reclusive Collyer brothers, who were found dead in 1947, buried under a mound of junk in a Harlem mansion. Given a suitably site-specific staging in the top floor of a former art school on the Charing Cross Road and blessed with a fine cast, including Andrew Scott, the piece left me fascinated but puzzled.
The story itself is certainly extraordinary. In the first half, set in 1905, we see Langley Collyer, a talented and capricious pianist, and his brother Homer, a retired lawyer, spasmodically mixing with society. There is even the prospect of Langley marrying Milly Ashmore, a wealthy heiress seeking to escape her hated Fifth Avenue family. But, once the marriage is aborted, the brothers begin their slow retreat from the outside world and, in the second half, eke out their immured existence in a house filled with a mountain of stuff that, historically, included 14 grand pianos, the chassis of a Model T Ford and booby traps to deter intruders.
If the first half has echoes of Henry James and Edith Wharton, the second half is pure American gothic and you can feel Greenberg resorting to increasingly implausible devices to keep the action moving. But although Ben Stones’s design could do more to distinguish between the two sections, Simon Evans’s finely calibrated production makes clear this is a play about fraternal love. Scott, in contrast to his TV work as Moriarty in Sherlock, plays Langley as a wide-eyed Blakeian innocent who can find a world in a grain of sand. He mixes a child’s rapt wonderment with a native cunning.
David Dawson, with eyes that constantly shift in their sockets like silver balls in a puzzle box, suggests Homer is an unhinged fantasist driven by an overpowering protective urge. Both actors are hypnotic and the exquisite Joanna Vanderham as Milly radiates a damaged sensuality.
Yet something about the play disturbs me. The most damning word the brothers use about each other is “ordinary”: at one point Homer suggests Langley is becoming a mere “garden variety neurotic” and he looks to the audience and claims: “No matter what you say, our life is better than yours.” I can understand the play is a testament to the power of sibling devotion in the most bizarre circumstances. I only jib at Greenberg’s conclusion that rampant individualism, however crazed or eccentric, is inherently superior to social conformity.
Author: Michael Billington
‘A dazzlingly witty tale of doomed romance’
Found111 is a new temporary theatre space on Charing Cross Road, within what used to be Central Saint Martins School of Art.
Now, via 70 steps and a swish bar, we enter the claustrophobic world of Richard Greenberg’s The Dazzle, an unorthodox romance inspired by the true story of two reclusive brothers whose bodies were found amid 136 tons of clutter in a crumbling New York town house.
We get to see only a small corner of their home but it gradually becomes more over-stuffed and we are left in no doubt about their eccentricity or the intensity of their relationship.
Andrew Scott is Langley, a gifted pianist who is constantly appalled by the noises other people emit.
He is an obsessive who can become completely preoccupied with a single thread in a piece of fabric — and can choose to make Chopin’s Minute Waltz last 40 minutes. This is what is meant by the play’s title — he is overwhelmed by the world’s complexity and beauty. David Dawson is his brother Homer, an ex-lawyer who has taken responsibility for supervising Langley’s career.
Both of them want to forge a connection with faintly bohemian heiress Milly (Joanna Vanderham).
At first Homer hopes to set Langley up with her — and she is certainly impressed by his refined and bizarre ways. But the liaison looks doomed and instead her destiny is to be a catalyst for uncomfortable change.
Scott, who is on mesmerising form, captures Langley’s capriciousness and instinct for a poetic turn of phrase.
Meanwhile, Dawson eloquently suggests the neurotic restlessness of a man hollowed out by his brother’s painfully fussy manner.
Yet despite the classy performances The Dazzle is frustrating. Greenberg’s writing is sometimes witty and sometimes unsettling, with more than a hint of Oscar Wilde in the first half and a strong note of Samuel Beckett in the second.
But frequent flowery speechifying does not compensate for the flimsy plot and although Simon Evans’ production is intimate the characters remain psychologically opaque.
Author: Henry Hitchings
Tony Award winner Richard Greenberg’s thrilling and fascinating play is brought to life in an anarchic space.
New York City. The beginning of the 20th Century. Two brothers sit in their home surrounded by 136 tons of hoarded junk. One is a concert pianist, his career is in ruins, eroded by the obsessional hoarding that has made it impossible for him to live a life outside his apartment.
The other - his brother - has become his shadow, instructed by their mother to act as gatekeeper. A rich young woman with a troubled family history enters and leaves their lives. Around their heads float the echoes of opera plots, of Madame Butterfly and La Bohème.