The Collection & A Kind of Alaska
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Karen Kolhaas
The late playwright Harold Pinter was a master of the unspoken. Deconstructing English stiff upper lip-ness, he wrote terse dialogue that spoke volumes, most often about the anger, distrust and desire passing between husbands, wives and their lovers. The first of the two one-acts in the Atlantic Theater Company’s new production at Classic Stage, The Collection & A Kind of Alaska (through December 19), belongs unquestionably to this genre. The more interesting second short subverts Pinteresque parlance as two tight-lipped characters struggle to communicate with a sick family member who talks incessantly and incoherently. The pairing works well, with the drier-than-dry banter of the first set against the gushing emotions of the second.
The Collection, from 1961, is about as symmetric a play as Pinter ever wrote, a mirroring reflected in Walt Spangler’s superb set: the living rooms of two London townhouses laid out side-by-side, one twee and dandy-ish, the other cool and modern. The former belongs to the older businessman Harry (Larry Bryggman), who lives there with Bill (Matt McGrath), a fashion designer whom he rescued from poverty and raised. On the other side live the younger businessman James (Darren Pettie), and his wife Stella (Rebecca Henderson), another fashion designer. Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s period costumes are appropriately spectacular. The households’ sudden closeness stems from James’s suspicion that Bill seduced and slept with his wife when they met during a business conference, an encounter Stella confesses to, but perhaps only to torment her psychologically abusive husband. The actors pass the burden of this alleged one-night-stand like a hot potato, dropping it on each others’ coffee tables in a series of encounters that range from polite friendliness to outright aggression. Each acerbic exchange only complicates the likelihood of establishing clear culpability. The actors handle the wry humor well, though faltering British accents soften the sting of certain passages, particularly between Pettie and Henderson, both of whom are just so irrepressibly American.
Less concerned with picking apart a specifically British type of emotional malaise, A Kind of Alaska was inspired by Oliver Sacks’ 1973 book Awakenings (as was the eponymous 1990 Robin Williams-Bobby DeNiro Best Picture Oscar nom). In it he recounted the life stories of patients afflicted with encephalitis lethargica, or “sleeping sickness,” an epidemic that affected some five million people worldwide between 1915 and 1926. One such sufferer, Deborah (the incredible Lisa Emery), wakes from a 29-year slumber as the lights rise post-intermission on her aseptic room. Reasonably convinced she’s still 15 years old, she speaks in unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness soliloquies, recounting family quarrels and schoolboy crushes as though hurriedly catching up for three speechless decades. Her sister and brother in law (Henderson and Bryggman) bring her gently up to speed on the various events (mostly unhappy) that the family has endured since her comatose condition began. Ultimately, though, it’s up to Deborah to rise from her stupor, which she does physically and then, it seems, emotionally. Emery’s rambling woman-child grasps at a more fundamental awakening to her sudden adulthood, though given what we’ve just seen of Pinter’s grown-ups in this elegant double-bill’s first half, it’s hard to say whether this ending is happy or tragic.
(photo credit: Ari Mintz)