The Collection & A Kind of Alaska
nytheatre.com review by Stephen Kaliski
November 20, 2010
In its press release for The Collection & A Kind of Alaska: Two Plays by Harold Pinter, Atlantic Theater Company writes that both works "are steeped in the author's signature humor, mystery, and psychological tension." While this definition of the Pinteresque loosely applies to each one-act, Atlantic's pairing is more notable for what the plays don't have in common, resulting in a disjointed evening of minor highs and lows from a legendary playwright.
The Collection, written in 1961, is vintage Pinter. Intrusion, confusion, and those delicious pauses define this intriguing play about James (Darren Pettie), a jealous husband who taunts the curiously flamboyant layabout Bill (Matt McGrath) for supposedly cheating with his wife (Rebecca Henderson). Bill lives with the much older Harry (Larry Bryggman), who supposedly rescued Bill from his slum origins and treated him to a privileged way of life.
As with the men in Pinter's The Dumb Waiter or The Birthday Party, the relationships between Bill and Harry and subsequently Bill and James are menacing and tantalizingly elusive. There's a lot of something on the line here, and we neither know nor need to know what that something is.
There's a precious fine line between good Pinter and bad Pinter in plays such as these. If a production believes that the menace will speak for itself, the playwright's invasive rhythms can seem hollow and stilted, as if the only purpose of the story is to create an exercise in mood. As directed by Karen Kohlhaas, The Collection begins in this empty territory, with atmosphere poured on a situation with little event or subtext.
Luckily, the actors quickly sink in, and James's drive to learn the truth clashes with Harry's peculiar desire to protect Bill in a way that genuinely creeps under your skin. One scene involving an alternately hilarious and threatening bit of intimidation with a cheese knife shows Pinter at his finest, searing us with images that come from an unspeakably dark humanity. Harry says, "I must have told him a dozen times, you know, that if someone throws a knife at you the silliest thing you can do is to catch it." At this moment, we feel on the verge of comprehending a secret that, were we to inch any closer, would cut us to the bone. Thus the magic of Pinter.
With this specific brand of danger in mind, A Kind of Alaska, written in 1982 in response to the epidemic of sleeping sickness chronicled in Oliver Sacks's Awakenings, comes out of nowhere. Walt Spangler's luscious split-screen Collection set turns into a stark hospital room with one bed and a table, and the flair of the previous play's storytelling grinds to a halt in this inert piece. Deborah (Lisa Emery), a victim of encephalitis lethargic, has just been reawakened after a decades-long sleep. Her doctor (Bryggman) and sister (Henderson) try to reacquaint her with her life, but she seems incapable of accepting that her best years have passed as if in a dream.
Instead of engaging The Collection in a dialogue, A Kind of Alaska takes us to a different pole of isolation, as if Atlantic's main point is to ask, "Wasn't Pinter versatile?" He certainly was, but A Kind of Alaska is not one of his best plays, and when paired with a much stronger piece, it only serves to make the entire production seem inconsequential.
Kohlhaas and her actors clearly know their Pinter, so even when the programming veers off course, the production is in capable hands. Bryggman is an especially bright spot as the menacing Harry and the compassionate doctor.
Kudos to Atlantic for keeping one of the indisputably great British playwrights alive on American soil, but this square peg and round hole of one-acts reminds us that all Pinter plays were not created equal.