review: the collection & a kind of alaska

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The Collection & A Kind of Alaska

Two Plays by Harold Pinter
Directed by Karen Kohlhaas
Featuring Larry Bryggman, Lisa Emery, Rebecca Henderson
Atlantic Theater Company at Classic Stage Company 136 E 13th St
production web site:
http://www.atlantictheater.org/page.aspx?id=12017065

November 3, 2010 – December 12, 2010

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 7, 2010 (preview)

Several decades ago I saw No Man’s Land on Broadway in 1976 before I had the life experience to  comprehend fully the thrust and parry.  But I felt it and was thrilled to see John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson on stage.  Several years ago I was introduced to Pinter’s Betrayal at Steppenwolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton and Ian Barford as my guides.  (review here: http://wp.me/pHkrs-cd).  To my taste, works by newer playwrights who wander into this spare world of words and pain and suggestion most often fail in their attempts.  I am intrigued by the tastes I’ve had of the original, and while no expert, I am ready for more.  All of this leads me to the double bill of 1961’s The Collection and 1982’s A Kind of Alaska, by the Atlantic Theatre Company at Classic Stage Company‘s black box of a theatre.  Both pieces new to me.  My theatre companion compares his experience of The Collection to a recorded version he knows well featuring Helen Mirren and Malcolm McDowell and Lawrence Olivier http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072796/.  My experience, not  similarly encumbered, is one of delight and enchantment and reflection inspired by both parts of the evening’s entertainment.

The evening opens with The Collection.  Two couples thrust and parry across and around two 1961 London apartments.  Dyads are magnified in this piece.  Two apartments, two designers (one male, one female, and one in each couple), homosexuality and heterosexuality (and a hint at bisexuality), two pairs of pinkish/ruby-ish shoes on the feet of the two designers.  James (Darren Pettie) believes his wife Stella (Rebecca Henderson) has been unfaithful with her designer colleague Bill (Matt McGrath) while they were both away on a work trip.  James calls the household that Bill shares with his older partner Harry (Larry Bryggman), and the play is set careening on its way.  Who is telling the truth? Whose insecurities are foremost at any one time?  It’s a masterful construction, beginning with a phone call, ending with a silent smile.  Everyone playing and dealing out pain with words rather than fists or weapons — though a cheese knife causes a nick at one point.  Set by Walter Spangler provides two spaces clearly delineated and elegantly integrated.  Director Karen Kohlhaas choreographs the movements among and between and within the two places elegantly, variously, intriguingly.  And Bobby Federick Tillly II‘s costumes are enchantingly appropriate — from on-point ill-fitting (on Bill) or elegant silk robe (on Harry) or 1960s hyper stylish (on Stella).  And then there are the shoes.

A Kind of Alaska utilizes a framing device that Pinter does not usually provide: a physical reason for the confusion and fragmentary understanding his characters usually endure and impart.  In a world made spare and uniform with hospital bed, table and chairs, and a bare white wall, Deborah (Lisa Emery) has just awoken from a 29-year disease-induced sleep.  Her body suddenly succumbed to sleeping sickness when she was 16.  She awakens at 45 (we do the math) in a nightgown, in a hospital or sanitarium room, with Doctor Hornby (Larry Bryggman) in attendance, and sister Pauline (Rebecca Henderson) about to visit.  We know Deborah is unaware of the 29 years that have passed since she last was fully conscious, and we watch her attempt to grapple with this fact with Doctor, with sister, and in her own mind.  Lisa Emery’s turn in this role is a beautiful pairing with Jan Maxwell‘s Wings at Second Stage Theatre — two attempts to address physical trauma with a fully intact intellect, from within and without.

A beautiful twinning and a powerful night of theatre.

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 8, 2010)

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