Eccentric brothers seem to be in vogue on area stages. The colorful and somewhat shady Mizner brothers are the subject of Stephen Sondheim's new musical Bounce at Washington's Kennedy Center. And now Rep Stage in Columbia is taking a look at two of the Mizners' early 20th-century contemporaries - those pack rats to end all pack rats, the Collyers.
A pair of New York recluses who achieved posthumous infamy after their bodies were discovered amid more than 100 tons of carefully accumulated debris in 1947, the Collyers were the inspiration for Richard Greenberg's 2002 play The Dazzle.
Although it's merely coincidence that Rep Stage is bringing us the Collyers at the same time that the Mizners are singing and dancing at the Kennedy Center, the Columbia theater and Dazzle director Kasi Campbell deserve credit for presenting the area premiere of a play by one of Broadway's hottest playwrights. Winner of the 2003 Tony Award for his baseball play Take Me Out, Greenberg is the first American playwright in more than a decade to have two plays running on Broadway; Greenberg's latest, The Violet Hour, opens there tonight.
But while it may be only serendipity that has brought The Dazzle and Bounce into each other's orbits, seeing them within days of each other points up certain unmistakable similarities. For one thing, both shows take imaginative leaps with their protagonists' biographies and psyches. Greenberg, who has acknowledged that he knows "almost nothing" about the Collyers, leaps the farthest.
In his conception, for example, Langley, the younger brother, is essentially a savant. A gifted pianist, Greenberg's Langley suffers from such finely tuned sensitivities that he cannot tear himself away from minutia. He eventually forsakes his concert career because he refuses to let go of musical notes (his "Minute Waltz," we are told, lasts three-quarters of an hour).
Bruce Nelson, who has excelled at playing social outcasts ever since he made his professional debut as The Elephant Man at Olney Theatre Center in 1991, delivers a compassionately observed depiction. His Langley is at once lovable and exasperating.
We can see why the seemingly saner brother, Homer - a former lawyer played by Bill Largess with an acerbic edge - feels compelled to take care of him. But at the same time, we wonder from the start how these two can make it through a single day together, much less the rest of their lives. Leaving questions like this largely unanswered is one of the strengths of Greenberg's challenging and enigmatic play.
Interestingly, both Greenberg and John Weidman, the librettist of Bounce, found it necessary to insert a fictitious female character into the lives of their fraternal pairs. In Bounce, the effort adds a buoyant touch of traditional musical-comedy romance. In The Dazzle, however, the female character (hauntingly portrayed by Cheryl Resor) contributes an extraneous layer of melodrama, and her presence detracts from what could be an even more claustrophobic relationship between Langley and Homer.
Both Bounce and The Dazzle also alter the events of their respective brothers' deaths. In Bounce, the alienated siblings have a rather inexplicably happy reunion in heaven. In The Dazzle, it is the somewhat childlike Langley who outlives his more mature brother - a reversal of the actual history.
Real life may not have been able to fully explain the emotional ties between these two sets of eerily co-dependent and mutually destructive brothers, and fiction has a tough time of it, too. Bounce and The Dazzle both offer insights into the inner workings of the love-hate fraternal bond. But they also demonstrate that the answer to the age-old question "Am I my brother's keeper?" can be excruciatingly complex. Ultimately, seeing each show through the lens of the other enhances them both.
A final note - kudos to Dazzle set designer Richard Montgomery and to whoever was responsible for assembling the myriad props that decorate and begin to overtake the Collyers' parlor. The action ends more than a decade before the brothers' died, but Montgomery's increasingly cluttered set leaves no doubt that they are well on their way to succumbing to the philosophy that more is more.
Show times for The Dazzle at Rep Stage, the professional company in residence at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2:30 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, through Nov. 23. Tickets are $13-$22. For more information, call 410-772-4900.
Show times for Bounce at the Kennedy Center, Washington, are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, with matinees 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Nov. 16. Tickets are $25-$9. For more information, call: 800-444-1324.
On Saturday, the Baltimore Playwrights Festival will continue its series of readings of plays under consideration for the 2004 festival. Here's the line-up: 11 a.m., A Question of Bones, by Ronda Cooperstein; 1 p.m., Empires Fall, a one-act play by Mark Scharf; 3 p.m., Aristotle and the Assassin Bug, by Robert Bowie. The readings will take place at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., and are free and open to the public. For more information, call 410-276-2153.