It seems fair to expect any play titled Clutter to be about an eponymous Kansas family immortalized in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but playwright Mark Saltzman’s interests lie in chronicling the lives of Homer and Langley Collyer, two Manhattan recluses who crammed their Harlem brownstone with 70 years’ worth of family possessions and collected junk. When authorities entered the home in 1947, its 136-ton inventory included 14 grand pianos, medical specimens, a Model-T Ford chassis and thousands of books. More shocking, they discovered that the bedridden Homer had recently died days after his caretaker brother was killed by a burglar booby trap he himself had rigged in the house, whose passages could only be navigated by tunnels bored through stacks of newspapers and debris.
In the debut production of Clutter at the Colony Theater, we meet the Collyers in 1919, as their father (Mark Christopher Tracy) walks out on his adult sons. Langley (Patrick Richwood) is a deluded pianist who practices all day dressed in a plum smoking jacket; Homer (Ed F. Martin), a maritime-law attorney, looks and sounds saner, only to reveal an equally bizarre — and fateful — sibling co-dependency.
There are obvious ways to present the Collyers’ tale: musical spectacle, Brechtian parable, “Rosebud” search, Freudian meditation on compulsive behavior, Marxist fable about accumulation. Saltzman chooses none of these because he’s not interested in exploring Homer and Langley too deeply. Instead, he introduces two other brothers, Reilly and Kevin Dolan (Jason Field and Seamus Dever), a pair of cops assigned to the Collyers’ neighborhood who carry on a lifelong rivalry — one aggravated by Kevin’s POW experiences during WWII.
At first the Dolans’ story, with its brother’s-keeper motif, merely seems like a pale reflection of the Gothic comedy unfolding within the brownstone. As the Dolans come to terms with each other, however, the Collyers’ story becomes the subplot. Too bad, for the flatfeet are nowhere near as interesting as the Collyers, and Saltzman has not written dialogue for them that is anywhere near as endearing as the Collyers’ conversations. Rick Sparks, normally an astute director, cannot breathe life into the play’s sentimental clichés and encumbers this production with his own melodramatic score. Saltzman, however, has mistaken the Dolans’ emotional histrionics for psychological clutter, when all they’re carrying is old-fashioned baggage.
CLUTTER: The True Story of the Collyer Brothers Who Never Threw Anything Out | By Mark Saltzman | At the Colony Theater, 555 N. Third St., Burbank | Through March 7 | (818) 558-7000