A Stage Review by WARREN DAY
There’s a long and cherished tradition in the American theater to base comedies around one or more eccentrics, going from “You Can’t Take It With You,” to “Auntie Mame,” to even big musicals like “Hello Dolly” and “The Producers,” to current productions like “The Addams Family.”
Yet, not every eccentric makes for a satisfying comedy, as is the case with the Caldwell Theatre’s world premiere production of “Stuff” by Michael McKeever.
Based on a true story, it concerns two brothers named Homer and Langley Collyer who lived, if you can call it that, from the Gilded Age of the late-19th century until the mid-20th. In 1909, along with their doctor father and ex-opera singer mother, they moved into a large brownstone in what was then fashionable Harlem.
The father abandoned the family in 1916 and, over the next 28 years, the brothers descended from eccentricity into madness. They became the stuff of legend, living as hermits, filling the multi-rooms of their mansion with everything from the chassis of an old Model T to fourteen pianos (both grand and upright) and thousands of newspapers. Eventually, the living space in this four-story townhouse was reduced to a few square feet as they lived out their lives without electricity or heat, and with only narrow tunnels through the junk to get them from one packed room to another.
It’s a story that has fascinated many writers including, not surprisingly, Stephen King, as well as E.L. Doctorow, the prize-winning author of “Ragtime.”
In the two acts of “Stuff,” the playwright has picked but two nights out of their lives, one in 1929 when their mother was still alive, and then in 1947 when literally their lives, and their junk, were crashing around them. And that’s a central problem: There’s no gradation of development, because you go from when the hoarding was manageable to when it was chaotic insanity. The play starts at a sad place and jolts toward a much sadder one.
The playwright offers no penetrating insight into why the brothers were the way they were, instead pulling out the old chestnut of the domineering mother (the fallback cause in many a play and novel as to why someone was an unhappy homosexual).
For over two hours, the brothers bicker and sling insults at each other and, while the audience laughed a good deal, it’s hard
to make a consequential evening at the theater of two inconsequential people who did nothing consequential with their lives. You end up with the uncomfortable feeling of being asked to laugh at two people who were mentally ill.
The play itself may be lacking, but as usual for the wonderful and adventuresome Caldwell Theatre Company, the direction by Clive Cholerton is top notch, the set by Tim Bennett is outstanding, and the acting is at a highly professional level, with
the playwright Michel McKeever giving a fine performance as Homer.
Running through July 31 at the Count de Hoernle Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, FL 33487.
For performance times and how to buy tickets, go to www.caldwelltheatre.com or call (561) 241-7432.