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Theater Review:

"THE DAZZLE" at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

"My brother makes an epic of a molecule," explains Homer Collyer of his obsessive-compulsive brother Langley. "What would he do with the world?"

This is one of the endless passages in Richard Greenberg’s "The Dazzle" – receiving its Midwest premiere at the Steppenwolf Studio Theatre – capable of encapsulating fanatical behavior within an eloquent musical outpouring of beauty and despair. The language alone transports an audience to pianist Langley’s elusive music of the spheres. Yet, initially, "The Dazzle" appears a strange and emotionally eerie play for viewers to wrap their arms around. Then its graceful evocation of two psychotically sensitive men’s fall from societal grace takes on the intrigue and complexity of the many leaves and assorted minutia Langley so painfully seeks to describe.

Greenberg’s play hypothetically examines the factors that led to the mystifying discoveries in a Harlem mansion in 1947 of the decomposing bodies of two brothers – Homer and Langley Collyer – essentially suffocated by their pack-rat existence. Inspired by a newspaper article about this bizarre fraternal bond, the playwright imagines how two wealthy men could turn from early 20th century New York City high society into hermits barricaded inside their estate which, over the years, became a hulking version of Fibber McGee’s closet, filled with tons of newspapers, books, car parts, dishes and other accumulated junk.

At one point in the play, Langley announces his contemplation of "a suicide by things." Yet, even in that delightfully cutting statement, exists the bitter claustrophobia of these men’s untreated mental illness. Greenberg, a consummate craftsman of the cadences of Gilded Age repartee and a writer who fluidly entwines wit and weariness, takes us on a humbling journey of mental collapse.

We first meet the burningly introspective Langley (a pianist) and his slick and possessive brother Homer (an admiralty lawyer) arriving home with free-spirited but tormented socialite Milly Ashmore after one of Langley’s interminable recitals.

Minor eccentricities surface, as when Langley insists on holding a note on his baby grand into the next century and Homer treats Milly with an odd mix of disdain and titillation. Droll and impossibly frank, Homer answers Milly’s insistence on being served a drink with, "I believe there’s some absinthe in the mud room." A fervid reader, he also offers her "a comic book or the Koran" (a subtle metaphor for this work’s combined absurdity and almost spiritual ruminations on the meaning of our existence).

Eventually, Milly – who is attracted to the shy and stumbling Langley, partially for real but also to spite her disturbingly dysfunctional family – and Homer devise a plan with devastating consequences. Milly convinces Langley to marry her. But, on their wedding day – when the disruptions of a woman occupying their house threaten to spark a nervous breakdown in the fragile, slave-to-routine groom – Langley backs out.

The second half of the play moves ahead to the brothers’ elder years after they’ve boarded up their mansion and begun collecting garbage. Their once-lavish home now is lit by miniature bonfires; there’s no electricity or running water. An unkempt Langley continues to fixate on the smallest details, while an embittered Homer (long saddled with the role of brother’s keeper in the extreme) is going blind. Unaware of the passing of time, the siblings know that a year has gone by only when the Christmas carolers (whom Langley castigates for flat singing) traipse through the rapidly declining neighborhood.

During one holiday, a disheveled and homeless Milly returns to recomplete their tragic triumvirate. Her abusive family life has pushed her into an asylum and, later, into the streets. Greenberg recounts this operatic tale without the slightest hint of melodrama. His gracious and pointed humor continues to softly fuel the story, even in the midst of these characters’ incomprehensible destitution.

Director David Cromer meticulously balances the script’s anguished, exhilarating irony. Even at their most beaten down, the Collyer brothers maintain their debonair dispositions and stingingly true sarcasm.

Tracy Letts, whose hesitant tone perfectly encapsulates Langley’s inarticulate awe of the world’s massive mysteries, delivers an engrossing performance of a man too cognizant for such an "ordinary" world – of a man so hyper-aware, he wishes he could lose one of his five sense. Letts’ contrapuntal counterpart, the crisply measured David Pasquesi as the identity-sacrificing Homer, wrenchingly traverses a hopeless path of ambition, loyalty and exhausted resolve.

Susan Bennett’s porcelain-skinned and shiningly "affected" Milly transcends caricature to serve as a damaged catalyst for the story’s future whirlpool of debilitating paranoia. A telling scene in which she and Letts’ Langley dance a waltz without holding one another illustrates their occupation of disconnected universes.

"The Dazzle’s" cogent exploration of severe mental disorders – in a swank and distressed setting – carries the play’s appeal beyond its weird and fascinating plot. An anti-romance in which accumulated objects fatally compensate for love, this lushly written drama examines the notion of dangerously cultivated originality – against the recurring metaphoric backdrop of a pivotal memory involving the men’s mother and "Aunt Prudy’s cheap lacquered vase."

Joey Wade’s brilliantly designed velvet-draped and tarnished Gilded Age mansion set – later consumed by mountains of domestic detritus – becomes as feeble and weathered as these two men’s psyches. It is lit by Jaymi Lee Smith with the pining visual-poetic equivalent of a scratchy Victrola recording – both wistfully nostalgic and filled with dusty longing. Costume designer Kristine Knanishu superbly recreates the furs and wrapped accordion satins of the play’s robber-baron era. Composers/sound designers Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman’s original score is reminiscent of a Noel Coward soundscape soured by uncontrollable fear and futility.

All of these elements reflect Langley’s misguided savoring of life. As Homer remarks on his brother’s molasses-like musical pacing, "He just couldn’t bear to let the note go."•

"The Dazzle" has been extended through June 16 at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets: $18-$27. Call 312-335-1650 or log onto www.steppenwolf.org.

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