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The Collection & A Kind of Alaska

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Matt McGrath, Darren Pettie, and Larry Bryggman.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

The only thing certain in the pair of Harold Pinter plays that the Atlantic Theater Company is presenting at Classic Stage Company is that identity is never certain. Both The Collection and A Kind of Alaska center on the notion that the whos and whats that constitute any given person are in constant flux, and that pinpointing them with any specificity is unthinkable, if not outright pointless. Director Karen Kohlhaas and her gifted company, however, have had no trouble locating and developing to the fullest both works' essential dramatic natures.

No one involved shies away from the thriller aspects of The Collection, treating it as the ever-modulating cat-and-mouse game it is. James (Darren Pettie) is positive that his wife, Stella (Rebecca Henderson), had a torrid one-night fling with Bill (Matt McGrath) during a recent weekend getaway. Why? Because she told him so. Bill acknowledges that he met and perhaps even groped Stella, but insists they didn't go all the way, which changes everything. Doesn't it? No number of threatening phone calls, some which seem to be from James and some from Bill's roommate Harry (Larry Bryggman), or hastily announced in-person visits, can alter the truth—whatever that may be.

For Deborah (Lisa Emery), the central figure of A Kind of Alaska, the situation is much more clear-cut. She was struck with sleeping sickness 29 years ago and is only now arising from her slumber, after being administered the recently developed drug L-Dopa by her doctor, Hornby (Bryggman). (Pinter derived the story for this 1982 play from Dr. Oliver Sacks's book Awakenings, which was later made into a movie starring Robin Williams.) What's immediately clear is that Deborah is not a true inhabitant of the modern world. She still believes (and acts like) she's 16, and has missed out on all the marriages, deaths, and other events that have defined her family's life. But is she, in some way, more clear-headed than either Hornby or her sister, Pauline (Henderson), who's waited around for Deborah to wake up as no one else has been able to do?

Lisa Emery and Rebecca Henderson.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

In both plays, the concept of what one knows and what doesn't—and being able to tell the difference between the two—is crucial, something Kohlhaas never disregards. She treads so lightly with it in The Collection that its intensity overtakes you with no advanced word, heightening the play's intimation that the most devastating things are left unsaid. If a high-class fashion designer is capable of these atrocities, isn't it better that we don't know about it? This message may have packed more punch when it was written in the less media-soaked year of 1961, but it's still a chilling denunciation of how far we're willing to let ourselves and others go. By contrast, the pyrotechnics of A Kind of Alaska are exactly what it needs to convince you that you're trapped in the waking-dream existence of a woman who's literally slept her life away. The impressively modular set (by Walt Spangler) only highlights the connections and differences between these works: for one play they're smartly appointed, for the other they're quietly barren.

The plays do draw from a single outstanding company of actors, all of whom inhabit these universes without the slightest hint of affectation or pretentiousness. Emery's is a tour-de-force turn as Deborah, unlocking countless conflicting feelings of lost time, abandonment, and displacement, while almost never moving from her bed—you are truly able to see her simultaneously as both a middle-aged woman and an adolescent, and can't be sure which is a more accurate representation of her still-maturing personality. And Henderson and McGrath, through their clipped line deliveries and no-nonsense manners, create two equally compelling stories of one night of (maybe) infidelity.

If A Kind of Alaska is the more gripping and personal of the two offerings, and The Collection a bit slighter and plottier, together the works make the powerful single statement that the things we say and believe cannot always be taken at face value. Whether we can ever know anyone is a common enough question—but whether we can ever actually know ourselves any better than we can anyone else is a more unusual one, and something these plays prove Pinter could ask and address with haunting clarity.

The Collection & A Kind of Alaska
Through December 19
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
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