Also see Sharon's review of Topdog/Underdog
Even with that much explained before you walk into the theatre, Clutter takes pains to get you up to speed, telling its story in flashback. It begins near the end, in 1947, when police officers discover the body of Homer Collyer in a house so crammed with junk, the police had to break a window to get in. But the cause of Homer's death is only part of the mystery; Homer's brother Langley is nowhere to be found.
With the endpoint clearly established, the play then goes back to 1919 and shares with the audience the events leading up to this scenario by telling the Collyers' story in chronological order. Interspersed with the tale is the police investigation of this bizarre mystery.
By bringing the audience in on the joke from the beginning, Clutter gets great laughs every time one of the Collyers innocently says, "Look what I found!" or "That could be worth something someday." Ed F. Martin and Patrick Richwood overplay the brothers' eccentricities to comic effect. Richwood is sometimes ridiculously over-the-top as the effeminate, artistic, over-expressive Langley, and Martin is solid in the less showy role of the colder, more practical Homer, who is charged with taking care of his flighty brother. But both are playing characters whose foibles are larger than life, and they play them about that big.
But one thing that is not big enough in this production is the clutter itself. The Collyers collected so much stuff it was ultimately measured in tons; junk of those dimensions can only really be portrayed in a set that looks like a fire hazard. Instead, set designer Bradley Kaye creates only one room of real clutter - which is the room the police investigate at the top of the show. The Collyers themselves are largely relegated to a room full of representations of clutter, in which a few choice items are supplemented by blocks on which stacks of newspapers or other items are simply suggested by monochromatic drawings. It is not sufficient. Clutter is such a big part of the Collyers' story, it needs to be seen in all of its oppressive, claustrophobia-inducing glory.
While this is problematic, it isn't fatal to the show for the simple reason that Clutter isn't ultimately about clutter; it is about brothers. The story of the reclusive Collyer brothers was a headline-grabbing curiosity; but Saltzman has teamed it with a lifesize, almost delicate, story of two everyday brothers - the officers investigating the mystery - trying to figure out their own relationship. Actors Jason Field and Seamus Dever play the Dolan brothers with accents that are so stereotypically "Irish cop," they at first appear to be stock characters simply supporting the Collyers' story. As the play progresses, their portrayal is revealed to be straightforward and true and their characters much more than mere tools to narrate the Collyers' tale.
Saltzman's script wisely uses the Dolans to demonstrate what could be learned from the Collyers, and thereby reins in what would otherwise be a one-joke piece. Director Rick Sparks also deserves credit for keeping the show properly balanced. There is no doubt that the Collyers' collecting and extreme frugality is funny, but Sparks makes sure the audience doesn't get so caught up in the humor that the tragedy at the heart of the story is forgotten. The result is a light comedy that is more memorable for a few touching moments than the laughs inherent in its subject matter.
Clutter plays at the Colony Theatre in Burbank through March 7, 2004. For tickets and information, click: www.colonytheatre.org.
The Colony Theatre Company - Barbara Beckley, Producing Artistic Director - presents Clutter: The True Story of the Collyer Brothers Who Never Threw Anything Out By Mark Saltzman. Scenic Design by Bradley Kaye; Lighting Design by Jeremy Pivnick; Sound Design by Cricket Myers; Costume Design by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg; Properties by MacAndME; Wig/Make-Up Design by Joni Rudesill; Production Stage Manager Kim Crabtree; Marketing/Public Relations David Elzer/Demand PR; Musical Soundtrack Design by Rick Sparks; Production Assistant Scott Jay; Assistant to the Stage Manager Chrissy Church. Directed by Rick Sparks.
Photo by Catherine Springer