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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Dazzle is
Part Sigmund Freud and
Part Oscar Wilde

Also see Richard's reviews of On the Twentieth Century and 8 Bob Off

The American Conservatory Theatre is presenting the Outer Critics Circle Award winning Off Broadway hit The Dazzle, by noted playwright Richard Greenberg. The production features A.C.T. core acting company members Rene Augesen, Steven Anthony Jones and Gregory Wallace, all of whom are outstanding in their roles.

Richard Greenberg’s fascinating play is supposed to be based on the lives of the eccentric Collyer Brothers, sons of a once distinguished New York family. The brothers' bodies were discovered in 1947 in their dilapidated 5th Avenue mansion, entombed among 136 tons of junk that included numerous musical instruments, mountains of old newspapers, thousands of books and an armory of weapons. The playwright admits that he knew very little of real life brothers so he invented personalities for each of the brothers. Why did they live in relative obscurity in their New York mansion full of scavenged personal effects? What caused them to be virtual recluses in their later years? The playwright attempts to answer these questions. We find that there is tenderness and humor in the presentation of the story of America’s most famous unconventional brothers.

The Dazzle
Gregory Wallace (left)
and Steven Anthony Jones

At the beginning of the drama we see the richly ornate, spacious drawing room of a manor in the early 1900s in Harlem. There are two grand pianos and two large marble statues of unearthly women “hanging” on each side of the stage. Younger brother Langley Collyer (Gregory Wallace) is a brilliant pianist, with a sensibility so refined that he gradually reduces his tempo to the point where, as his brother Homer (Steven Anthony Jones) says, “He takes forty five minutes to play the minute waltz. He hates to let go of the note.” It is Homer's job to keep Langley from squandering what is left of the family fortune. An unhappy heiress, Millie Ashmore (Rene Augesen), comes into their lives and Homer is determined to secure Millie’s hand and fortune for his brother. However, Langley is so ethereal that the enticing of Millie provides some absurd comic moments between the pair. In one scene Langley insists that he and Millie waltz separately since, as he says “I’m perfectly in tempo - it’s you and the musicians who’re going wrong.” The younger brother would much rather touch the embroidered taffeta of Millie's skirt than her body.

Much of the dialogue in the first act is reminiscent of dialogue from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. A good example is when Langley says to Homer, “She has nothing to say, and she says it incessantly ... Why, Homer, she very nearly bores me, and hardly anything does that,” or, “Books always seem to me like music explaining itself under duress.”

The second act is more Freud than Wilde with Millie’s revelation of childhood sexual abuses, and the strong bond between the two brothers, which is very psychological. The drama continues years later when junk has piled up all over the house. The brothers have become recluses in their dilapidated mansion, and much of their conversation deals with psychological analysis. The thematic connections are too indefinable. Some of the emotional depth of the characters seems to come too late in the play.

Gregory Wallace and Steven Anthony Jones are brilliant together. You can see the tight bond of fraternal love between the two men, and this becomes the central emotion of the play. Wallace’s characterization of the younger brother is amazing. He makes his eccentric character believable. His speech patterns in both acts are beautiful, almost poetic in manner. Jones is less flamboyant and less colorful as the older brother; however, it is enlightening to see him create this character who merges into his own psychosis. Although Rene Augesen's role is a catalyst in the first act, it seems somewhat superfluous when she returns in the second act many years later. However, she is exceptional as Millie.

Director Laird Williamson moves the characters around brightly, especially in the first act, and he effortlessly eases them past some of the somber moments of the second act. The set by Robert Mark Morgan is a marvel, especially in the second act, with junk hanging everywhere. It is amazing to watch the open spaces of the drawing room filling up with an accumulation of debris such as books, piles upon piles of old newspapers, a cello and a harp among other items. It is an imposing sight.

The Dazzle runs thru March 16 at the Geary Theatre, 414 Geary Ave, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.


Photo: Ken Friedman


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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