Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Theater feature/review: McKeever's 'Stuff' brings empathy to hoarders' tale

From left:‭ ‬Michael McKeever,‭ ‬Nicholas Richberg
and Angie Radosh, in Stuff.

By Hap Erstein

Prolific and eclectic.‭ ‬You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get with a Michael McKeever play.‭ ‬But if you don’t like one,‭ ‬don’t worry,‭ ‬there will be another along in six months.

As it happens,‭ ‬the Davie-based playwright-performer is serving up a winner currently with his new dark comedy,‭ ‬Stuff,‭ ‬now receiving its world premiere at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton through July‭ ‬31.

It chronicles the eccentric lives of Homer and Langley Collyer,‭ ‬the infamous Harlem hoarders,‭ ‬who amassed ceiling-high stacks of newspapers,‭ ‬pianos and other collectible curiosities in their seedy mansion,‭ ‬where they died amid the clutter in‭ ‬1947.

The obsessive Collyer brothers have been a fascination of McKeever’s since he was a boy.‭ “‬My mom would come into my and my brother’s bedroom and say,‭ ‘‬Oh,‭ ‬my god,‭ ‬it’s the Collyer mansion‭’‬,‭” ‬McKeever recalls.‭ “‬I grew up hearing‭ ‘‬Collyer mansion,‭’ ‬but I had no idea what it was,‭” ‬beyond a negative role model of what his own room should not look like.

As a result,‭ ‬he has grown up with an aversion to becoming a hoarder.‭ “‬Me‭? ‬Oh,‭ ‬god,‭ ‬no.‭ ‬I definitely have a type A personality,‭” ‬says McKeever.‭ “‬I keep things that mean a lot to me,‭ ‬things from my youth.‭ ‬But I’m more,‭ ‘‬You’re done with this magazine‭? ‬OK,‭ ‬throw it away.‭’ ‬If I were to keep everything,‭ ‬I‘d have a Collyer mansion.‭”

Trying for historical accuracy without limiting his dramatic license,‭ ‬McKeever looks at the Collyers at two points in their lives‭ ‬--‭ ‬1929,‭ ‬just months before the stock market crash,‭ ‬when their hoarding began in earnest,‭ ‬and‭ ‬1947,‭ ‬when their acquisitive impulses reached a conclusion.‭

What makes‭ ‬Stuff so interesting is how McKeever uses these two squandered lives of such promise to explore major themes,‭ ‬like the financial and racial inequities in society and the complex gravitational pull of family.‭ ‬There is plenty to laugh at in‭ ‬Stuff,‭ ‬but they are not empty laughs,‭ ‬as the play paints a surprisingly thought-provoking portrait of life‭ ‬--‭ ‬albeit not very typical life‭ ‬--‭ ‬in the‭ ‬20th century.

‭“‬People ask me if it’s about hoarding and I say not really,‭ ‬it’s about this really twisted,‭ ‬wonderfully goofy,‭ ‬eccentric family,‭” ‬says McKeever.‭ “‬To me,‭ ‬the most interesting thing about them isn’t the fact that they collected all this stuff,‭ ‬but the dynamic between the two brothers and,‭ ‬for that matter,‭ ‬the mother as well.‭ ‬And to me,‭ ‬it’s all Oedipal,‭ ‬it all goes back to mom.‭”

As the first act illustrates,‭ ‬Homer and Langley led two very symbiotic,‭ ‬yet antagonistic lives.‭ ‬Each has ambitions beyond his given life of privilege,‭ ‬but those dreams are invariably quashed by their mother,‭ ‬Susie,‭ ‬bitter from her own failed opera career and the desertion of her husband.‭ ‬Homer yearns to buy some independence by purchasing the house across Fifth Avenue and becoming a landlord.‭ ‬Langley wants to resurrect his concert career as a classical pianist of undetermined talent.‭ ‬But Momma knows best,‭ ‬or at least how to manipulate her offspring and keep them under her thumb.

There are hints of the beginnings of the Collyers‭’ ‬hoarding instincts in Act One,‭ ‬but after intermission‭ ‬--‭ ‬thanks to the ingenuity and resources of Caldwell scenic designer Tim Bennett‭ ‬--‭ ‬the mansion has gone to seed,‭ ‬filled with clutter forming a barricade of collected stuff,‭ ‬which hems in Homer and Langley and claustrophobically confines the action to a small downstage center area.‭ ‬There the brothers have also gone to seed,‭ ‬particularly Homer,‭ ‬now blind and disheveled,‭ ‬looking and behaving like a fugitive from a Samuel Beckett play.‭ ‬

Stuff‭ ‬is not only McKeever’s best script in quite a while‭ ‬--‭ ‬probably since his Carbonell Award winner‭ ‬Melt‭ ‬--‭ ‬but he has given himself a major acting plum in Homer,‭ ‬which he handles with impressive skill.‭ ‬His Act One performance does not break new ground,‭ ‬being a wisecracking whiner who gets tossed about,‭ ‬but his work in the second half shows a depth of feeling that is crucial to the play’s emotional core.

Director Clive Cholerton juggles the comedy and pathos ably,‭ ‬drawing strong performances from the rest of the four-member cast.‭ ‬Angie Radosh is genteel and iron-fisted as Mother Collyer,‭ ‬whose indulgence and disapproval are instrumental in sending her sons off on their rudderless existence.‭ ‬Nicholas Richberg‭ (‬Langley‭) ‬is everything Homer is not,‭ ‬except neurotic,‭ ‬and Marckenson Charles provides crucial support in two varied characters who stand in for the world outside the Collyers‭’ ‬mansion walls.

While his main characters are certainly extreme,‭ ‬McKeever hopes he can draw an audience to their side.‭

“‬What I’m trying to do in putting these characters together,‭ ‬is for the audience to‭ ‬have great empathy towards them,‭ ‬to see that underneath all the craziness are two really,‭ ‬really likeable guys.‭ ‬Despite their abuse towards each other and the outside world,‭ ‬they really are two loving guys,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬And ultimately they are victims of the times in which they lived and in the times in which they refused to live.‭”

As he succinctly sums up‭ ‬Stuff,‭ ‬it is‭ “‬a look back at Americana from the turn-of-the-century to the‭ ‬1940s,‭ ‬when everything was possible and the world was changing so quickly that some people simply didn’t have a chance to catch up.‭ ‬It’s a funny,‭ ‬fascinating look at the past‭ ‬---‭ ‬where we’ve been and how we got to where we are now.‭”

STUFF,‭ ‬by Michael McKeever‭; ‬Caldwell Theatre Company,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬July‭ ‬31.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$38-$50.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬241-7432‭ ‬or‭ ‬(877‭) ‬245-7432.

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