The Collyer Brothers are one of the odder footnotes in New York City history, a pair of well-off recluses who briefly became tabloid fodder when, in the late 1940s, they were found dead in their Harlem townhouse surrounded by several decades' worth of accumulated junk. Now playwright Richard Greenberg has resurrected them in his new work The Dazzle; openly admitting he knows nothing about the Collyers, Greenberg has imagined their lives. Langley (Reg Rogers) is a concert pianist obsessed with concrete reality: He can stare at leaf for hours, rapt at its complexities. Homer (Peter Frechette) is a former maritime lawyer who retires to manage his brother’s life, ending up completed trapped by Langley’s obsessions. Much of the action centers on their involvement with Milly Ashmore, a rather independently minded society belle who nearly marries Langley and later returns to them having become a tragic outcast.
The Dazzle, presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, is one of the season’s most unique plays--many critics appreciated its humor and strong performances while loudly wondering what it is all about. The first act is a kind of parody of Edith Wharton, while the second plays like an absurdist comedy from the 1950s or 60s. It is another distinctive piece of writing from one of America’s most accomplished playwrights.
The Dazzle provides its design team with many opportunities. Allen Moyer’s set is a richly detailed interior, depicting the brothers’ parlor, distinguished by a gallery level, a painted ceiling, overstuffed furniture, a piano, and lots of Victorian knickknacks. As time goes by, the debris piles up, getting big laughs from the audience during the scene changes. Less noticeable, perhaps, but equally crucial is the lighting design by Jeff Croiter, which subtly establishes various moods and times of day. Of course, as the junk piles up, so did Croiter’s challenges.
"Lighting the junk was a real arts-and-crafts project," laughs the LD, adding, "there was more and more of it every day." His solution: approximately 100 miniature 40W lightbulbs, distributed in and around each pile. The effect is spooky and compelling at the same time, creating soft, shadowy lighting--trash has never looked so romantic.
Overall, Croiter says, given the play’s shift in tone, "I approached the lighting for each act very differently. In Act I, I tried to be as realistic as possible. Act I has five scenes set in five different times of day, with five different moods that have to be conveyed by the lighting. I worked very closely with David Warren [the director] to determine what they were." The stage right window and the many lamps in the room played a major role, allowing him to suggest different levels of natural and artificial light. "In the second act," he adds, "time of day didn’t matter as much. The lighting is gradually more heightened, however. We lose most of the window [which is blocked by a pile of junk]. The lighting becomes more abstract, less source-driven. The outside world slowly ceases to matter."
Like the Collyers, Croiter had problems with too much stuff, having to fit his design into a detailed setting crammed into a tiny space. The Dazzle is playing at The Gramercy Theatre, a former movie house with virtually nothing in the way of wing space or height. "The set is very tall," he says, "and there’s a grid system which hangs beneath steel beams. I wanted to hang a few of the electrics above the steel beams, so the lights would be out of view. I asked the master electrician if it would be possible, assuming he would say no, but he said yes; the crew was game for anything. It is so nice to be supported in that way. It isn’t always like that."
The key to lighting the first act scenes, he says, was direction of light and color temperature. "This was sort of an old-fashioned approach to lighting. The challenge was trying to find the right angle of light, given the set, with its very tall walls, big chandelier, and beams." Most of the daylight effects were created by striplights hung vertically and aimed through the stage right window. Also, "the walls are green, with gold stencil, and, at first, I couldn’t figure out a color to light them, if at all." He ended up with an array cool tones in the blue range, which are supplied by four Morpheus ColorFaders. In the second act, the light becomes more "isolated," says Croiter. "As the play gets more dramatic, the lighting becomes more shadowy, more surreal. The first act is big and bright; the final scene is lit for the most part by two units: a special on Homer in his chair and one box boom unit that lights wherever Langley walks during the scene." Using subtle cueing and barely noticeable transitions, the LD helped underline the play’s arc from high comedy to its sad, absurd finale.
The Roundabout has a house package of equipment, mostly ellipsoidals, plus the striplights, and an ETC Obsession 600 control console. The rest of the equipment, including ETC Sensor dimmer racks, were supplied by Fourth Phase. Other personnel included master technician Patrick Ryan, technical supervisor Steve Beers, and assistant to the lighting designer Matthew Piercy.
Croiter is normally a busy LD, but the opening of The Dazzle inaugurated a period of overdrive as he opened five shows in six weeks. Besides The Dazzle, these included Thumbs, a new thriller starring Kathie Lee Gifford, at the Helen Hayes Theatre in Nyack, NY; control.alt.del., a new play at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ; and two New York productions: Melancholy Baby, a musical version of Hamlet (you read that right), and Five Women Waiting, the latter for Manhattan Theatre Source.
How does he keep up this kind of pace? "You work piece by piece," he says. "You try to take care of next Thursday’s problem today." At this pace, he may find himself envying the Collyer Brothers and their housebound lives.