Mr. Freud, meet Mr. Wilde.
That fantasy encounter seems to have inspired Richard Greenberg’s new play “The Dazzle,” a windy, intermittently amusing but ultimately arid jeu d’esprit that reimagines a pair of Wilde-styled dandies as turn-of-the-century New York neurotics.
Greenberg’s persnickety eccentrics are supposed to be the Collyer Brothers, Langley and Homer, who are famed for having amassed a terrifying amount of bric-a-brac, notably every newspaper going back for several decades, in their Harlem townhouse. But in a paradoxical author’s note, Greenberg disavows any documentary instincts: ” ‘The Dazzle’ is based on the lives of the Collyer brothers, about whom I know almost nothing,” he writes Wilde-ishly.
This gives him the freedom to turn them into a twin set of literary comments on the characters of Wilde. The play intriguingly intimates that the fantastically refined sensibilities of “The Importance of Being Earnest’s” Algy Moncrieff and John Worthing, whose flippant ghosts seem to hover over the play’s early scenes, were rooted deep in the kind of psychological afflictions into which Freud was digging contemporaneously a few world capitals away. (Not for nothing does the third character in the play, a dissatisfied heiress, announce she’s just come from Vienna with the latest news in neuroses.)
Langley, played by Reg Rogers in his familiar slurringly eloquent, punch-drunk manner, is a pianist with a sensibility so refined he gradually reduces his tempi to the point where the Minute Waltz comes in at three-quarters of an hour; he can’t bear to let the notes go, as his brother observes. Langley can become entranced by the beauty of a single thread in an antimacassar, and pontificates endlessly about the hallowed significance of the neighborhood men returning from work (“It borders on the visible how they scatter behind them what’s come before…”).
His brother Homer (Peter Frechette) has retired from a career as an admiralty lawyer to guide Langley’s performing career and make sure he doesn’t fritter away the family fortune. They live in a handsome townhouse whose exotically cluttered parlor has been rendered with such distinction by Allen Moyer that it becomes a sort of fourth character in the play.
The plot concerns the brothers’ diffident courtship of that unhappy heiress with the very Jamesian name of Millie Ashmore (Francie Swift). Homer proves more determined in securing Millie’s hand — and fortune — for his brother than the ethereal Langley. The woozy wooing of Millie provides for some of the play’s absurd comic highlights, as when Langley insists he and Millie waltz separately (“I’m perfectly in tempo — it’s you and the musicians who’re going wrong”). Later Millie undoes her corsets and asks Langley, “Would you like to touch?” He dives for the embroidered taffeta of her skirt, to secret observer Homer’s horror. Millie is entranced by Langley’s delicate sensibility, but it ultimately proves too delicate to admit the actuality of marriage.
Plot is of little consequence here, in any case — which is just as well, since Greenberg’s is newsprint-thin. Character appears to be immaterial to the playwright, too. Aside from some gloomy references to the breaking of a vase that seems to loom peculiarly large in the psychologies of both brothers, we never learn much about what might have caused Langley’s obsessive need to contemplate the world and its wonders (“Everything that is is fine” is his mantra) while recoiling from its personae, or his brother’s neurotic, at times seemingly incestuous devotion.
In fact, these characters are really little more than the sum of their fabulous dialogue. And some of it is indeed fabulous in a self-consciously Wildean manner: Greenberg certainly knows how to write rococo aphorisms and pretty paradoxes. A few examples: Of the wonderfully “miasmic” quality that attracts him to Millie, Langley says, “She has nothing to say, and she says it incessantly. … Why Homer, she very nearly bores me, and hardly anything does that!” “Tragedy is where a few people sink to the level where most people always are.” “Books always seem to me like music explaining itself under duress.”
But Wilde used his ageless witticisms to adorn and even advance his sturdy, ingeniously structured plots. Greenberg’s piles of clever verbiage mostly just fill stage time, amusingly but eventually wearisomely. Failing dramaturgical inspiration, Greenberg supplies in its place a lugubrious layer of psychological analysis (including Millie’s revelation of childhood sexual abuse — she’s a textbook Freudian case, it seems).
This is not an equal exchange, I’m afraid, and Greenberg’s play gradually sinks under the weight of its ornate language and opaque characters, as well as late-coming pretensions to emotional depth that feel like afterthoughts. David Warren’s generally buoyant direction becomes a bit sluggish in the play’s final scenes, and even Frechette and Rogers, who handle their long and complicated speeches impressively, begin to look a little too glazed-eyed.
The fantastic piles of debris that gradually accumulate around the brothers provide some visual fascination, but they eventually begin to take on uncomfortable significance. They could be seen as a metaphor for the play itself, which lingers in the mind only as a random collection of memorable witticisms amid a staggering welter of meaningless words.