"Stuff" at the Caldwell Theatre: A Great Drama Buried Under an Unconvincing Comedy Clutter
Back in 1929, there was no Hoarders. There was no Hoarding: Buried Alive, its sensationally titled cousin on TLC. But over several decades beginning in the 1920s, Homer and Langley Collyer would become the first tabloid celebrity hoarders. The affluent couple buried themselves under some 130 tons of accumulated junk in their Brooklyn mansion. The Collyers' story is so bizarre and disturbing that no fiction writer could top it.
That hasn't stopped South Florida playwright Michael McKeever from giving it a shot in his world premiere Stuff, which clutters the Caldwell through July 31. Given its subject matter, the first thing that's clear about the Caldwell production is Tim Bennett's customarily extravagant set design. There is a large assemblage of collected props in a spacious sitting room of the Collyer mansion in 1929. But it hardly conveys the obsession and immobility of the typical hoarder: The gewgaws are partitioned in stands or cabinets or, we're told, sequestered in the attic. Only the sporadic stack of newspapers suggests something might be awry.
In this environment, the Collyer brothers come off as conventional bickering siblings, not the abject eccentrics they were reported to be. The brothers, Homer (McKeever) and Langley (Nicholas Richberg), live in the mansion with their manipulative, domineering mother. Angie Radosh is smartly cast as the matriarch; her character is a mothballed relic of a caste past, the kind of snooty debutante Blanche DuBois might have been before her decline.
Neither of the brothers have jobs, but they do hope heed their mother's hectoring calls to reach their potentials. For Homer, this means purchasing a vacated building across the street and developing luxury apartments; Langley channels his latent creativity through half-baked inventions and an unfulfilled desire to reboot his piano career. They live in faded opulence, but their presence stifles each other.
The first act is unnecessarily lengthy, at a staid 70 minutes. McKeever's decision to dramatize the Collyers' lives as a contemporary comedy rarely works, appearing as inappropriate as it is ahistoric. The characters are arch sitcom caricatures, albeit of a more literate sitcom than many, and they sound like they're reciting lines. It's no coincidence that the best moments of act one occur when the characters are liberated from the shackles of snappy banter. There's Langley's loquacious defense of a cobalt medicine bottle he has quizzically kept. As a playwright, McKeever has a tendency to underline in boldface type the show's themes — enclosure, hollow nostalgia, disdain for social progress — as if he's embedding Cliff's Notes into his own text.
Some of the show's flaws are rectified in the second act, set nearly two decades later, after the brothers have succumbed to full-on, freak-show hoarderdom — the Grey Gardens gals gone more gonzo. Their lives are as much a shambles as their once-stately mansion, the juicy details of which have been well-documented and adhered to with factual accuracy by McKeever.
The transformed set is stunning, and the action in front of it is just as compelling. Marckenson Charles turns in another dynamic performance as a thief with a touching backstory, but McKeever is the revelation of this extended scene. He's usually limited to snarky, scene-stealing sidemen, but here he emerges as the play's dominant performer and its piteous core. Just as McKeever the playwright begins to shed his work's comic patina and finally explore these characters' disturbing depths, so too does McKeever the actor push his limits well beyond his comfortably witty boundaries, and the result is striking. It's a shame it took both McKeevers so long to discover it.
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