Junk Geniuses

Written by Mimi Kramer on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

I came straight
home from The Dazzle, Richard Greenberg’s three-character
play about the Collyer Brothers (at the Gramercy Theater through May 12) and
threw out all the plastic shopping bags that had been mounting up in the pantry
closet. Then I went at the piles of newspapers waiting to be gone through–two
in the kitchen and three or four on the hallway bookcase. I was heading for
another mound, on the living room futon, but got distracted by the laundry cart
and sorted some socks instead. Such is the transforming power of art.

play, which the Roundabout is presenting in a production directed by David Warren,
is a sheer delight. A fanciful meditation on the legend of New York’s most
famous recluse pair, it’s not so much based on their shared life together
as it is inspired by the image of how they died, buried alive in their Harlem
mansion under a lifetime’s worth of clutter and debris, victims of fatal
paranoia and a pathological inability to throw anything out.

goes back to a time before the Collyer boys were quite so peculiar, furnishing
them with a putative youth and respectability. He also invents a woman (as in
cherchez la) and a crisis (a marriage that never took place). The play
is sort of an anti-period piece. It juxtaposes flagrant anachronisms (conversational
and circumstantial) with tropes and figures from the fiction and drama of the
first half of the last century. One brother, Langley (Reg Rogers), talks like
a Wildean protagonist, the other, Homer (Peter Frechette), comes on like a character
out of Noel Coward, while the woman (Francie Swift), a young heiress who attaches
herself to the brothers for reasons of her own, seems at times like a heroine
from one of Shaw’s pleasanter plays. Occasionally, the situation in the
play calls to mind one of the triangular relationships in an Edith Wharton or
Henry James novel. (More often, it doesn’t.) Out of this ragbag of literary
forms, Greenberg emerges with a genre all its own–call it screwball tragedy.

In terms
of the actual facts of the Collyers’ story, The Dazzle plays fast
and loose with recorded history. Matters of which brother seems to have been
the caregiver at what point in their lives, of where and when they died, at
what ages, how, in what order and in what sort of physical state and proximity
to each other–all these were aspects of the affair that shocked the public
or fed speculation when the story broke in 1947, as did the bizarre manner in
which the brothers had been living. (The best account of the case is probably
that furnished in 1998 by William Bryk in his "Old Smoke" column in
New York Press. It can be accessed at www.nypress.com/12/39/news&columns/oldsmoke.cfm.)

The truth
is considerably more horrific and peculiar than is generally known or than Greenberg
makes out. But as a program note makes clear, Greenberg isn’t all that
interested in the historical Homer and Langley Collyer. He’s interested
in what the haunting specter of their life together can be made to represent
for us. The play is a meditation on two types of neurosis that feed off each
other. Greenberg’s Langley is an artist of the helpless-genius variety,
a gifted pianist whose career is derailed by his own refusal or inability to
behave according to conventional expectation, whether meeting concert obligations
or playing a familiar piece of music at a reasonable tempo. Overwhelmed by the
big picture, Langley fixates on minutiae–a hair, a thread, a leaf, a fraction
of a tone–which he seems able to lament or contemplate endlessly. In his
brother’s diagnosis, he’s simply unable to let the notes go. It’s
a lovely conceit (not to mention an intriguing if somewhat poeticized vision
of anal retentiveness). Rogers has been rightly praised for his portrayal of
Langley, whose lines he intones with an adenoidal languor that suggests a reluctance
to part with even the breath it takes to utter them. But it’s Frechette’s
Homer, whose inability to leave is the other half of the story, who really breaks
your heart.

In real
life, Langley Collyer was a concert pianist, but making him a genius
was Greenberg’s idea. That’s pure invention, and it makes The Dazzle
the latest in a recent spate of movies about intellectual prodigies. I wouldn’t
have noticed this if Ben Brantley hadn’t made the connection in his review
of Greenberg’s play; I was busy tracking tales of scientists and mathematicians,
which seem to be unusually plentiful of late: Darren Aronofsky’s offbeat
thriller Pi, about an obsessive math/computer whiz; Copenhagen,
Michael Frayn’s play about the Nobel physicists Niels Bohr and Werner
Heisenberg; David Auburn’s Proof, about the brilliant daughter
of a University of Chicago mathematician (which won a Pulitzer Prize for drama
last year); Peter Parnell’s QED, about another Nobel physicist,
the American Richard Feynman. And, of course, there’s the Hollywood blockbuster
A Beautiful Mind, about the brilliant Princeton mathematician
John Forbes Nash, who suffered from schizophrenia for much of his adult life
and in 1994 won a Nobel Prize in economics for a paper on game theory produced
45 years before. American popular culture would seem to be going through one
of its periodic love affairs with intellect just now.

always nice to see a high value placed on intelligence (it happens rarely enough),
but some of these plays and movies seem to worship genius without really knowing
why. I recently caught up with QED, which reopened at Lincoln Center
in February after a two-month hiatus, and found it mildly embarrassing. Ostensibly
based on Feynman’s own writings (the program credits a book he co-authored
called Tuva or Bust!), it takes place in a single evening in which the
physicist is trying to decide whether to undergo a particularly risky form of
surgery that may finish him off or may trounce a cancer that has been diagnosed
as inoperable. Mostly, the play consists of Feynman talking to the audience,
sharing hopes and dreams and memories, reminiscing about the heady days at Los
Alamos working on nuclear fission, playing phone tag with various physicians
and voicing the odd qualm about the moral rightness of having helped build the
bomb. Except for a couple of interruptions from a student (Kellie Overbey),
nothing else happens. Since nothing Feynman says or does offers a window onto
what is supposed to be an uncommon mind, the impression left by the play is
that we’re to take an interest in this man because he is super-smart and
because he may be dying.

is similarly frustrating for anyone who approaches it expecting to gain
insight into the beauties of higher mathematics–the more so because its
protagonists are constantly alluding to them. There’s endless talk in the
play about the "elegance" of a particular mathematical proof whose
authorship is in question, but Auburn makes no attempt to explore what that
means. What does "elegance" in a mathematical proof consist of? And
how does it relate to other brands of human endeavor? We’re never told,
just as we’re given no inkling as to how the formal mathematical proof
reflects the beauty of the world or the poetry of human and divine intelligence.

What if
the heroine of Auburn’s play were not a "genius"? If it turned
out that she hadn’t written the amazingly brilliant proof found
in her late father’s papers, would the years she’d lost looking after
him be less wasted and poignant? Would her plight–the fact that her sister
has sold the house and that she fears she’ll go crazy like Dad–be
less interesting or important? That seems to be the implication.

In Copenhagen,
Frayn used the mysterious and much-pondered wartime meeting between Bohr
and Heisenberg to suggest how essentially unknowable human motivation is–unmappable
as anything in the behavior of the atomic particles whose observation inspired
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Thoughtful people may differ as to
the moral implications of this idea, and they have differed about it,
particularly in recent weeks with the release of certain papers bearing on the
subject of the play. What is never in any doubt is the impulse behind it: Frayn’s
fascination with quantum mechanics and his interest in locating in its theories
a metaphor for human action and experience. What gives plays like QED and
Proof the patina of literature is the reverence they evince for the idea
of ideas. In fact, these plays couldn’t be less interested in ideas.

Ron Howard’s
biopic about John Nash doesn’t get any nearer to the essence of the latter’s
genius, but it does have one thing going for it, which is the expression of
paranoid delusions in terms of a Cold War spy thriller. In Akiva Goldsman’s
screenplay, Nash’s delusions partly take the form of very real fantasies
about being recruited into the Secret Service. Nash’s actual real-life
delusions were antigovernment and nonpatriotic (he spent some of his worst years
living in Europe trying to relinquish his citizenship and to get the bewildered
representatives of European officialdom to offer him political asylum) but that’s
no more relevant than the content of his ravings, anti-Semitic or not, or his
early sexual ambivalence, real or perceived (both of which were much discussed
in the media in the weeks leading up to the Oscars). What’s clever about
the spy conceit is the way it forces us to experience the plight of delusion
ourselves. Because Nash’s fantasies take the form of familiar genre tropes,
until we begin noticing the wit behind Ed Harris’ deadpan performance as
an OSS mystery man, we believe in them too.

A couple
of times, Howard uses cinematic gimmickry to probe into the nature of Nash’s
ideas and quality of mind. In one scene, we watch a set of choreographed arrows
head now for a sultry blonde and now away from her. (This is Howard
and Goldsman’s attempt to explain something called the Nash Equilibrium.)
There’s also a sequence in which Nash (Russell Crowe) demonstrates to his
bride-to-be (Jennifer Connelly) that he can find any object or shape in the
multitude of stars. Crowe lifts his finger to the heavens and charts a course,
and–hey presto!–a line of stars lights up in the shape Connelly has
named, like something in a PowerPoint presentation. The scene is oddly distasteful.
It’s pure Disney, for one thing. But it’s also unsettling since Nash’s
ability to see things that aren’t there is his whole problem.

Or, rather,
it is and it isn’t. A Beautiful Mind, which sets out to celebrate
Nash’s triumph over schizophrenia, is actually of two minds about madness.
It needs for madness to be a bad thing, in order for Nash’s redemption
and rehabilitation to seem meaningful, but it also wants it to be a metaphor
for creativity. It wants us to see Nash as an artist, possibly because that’s
how Howard sees himself. What else is the artist if not he who reimagines the
world in visions of his own devising?

probably impossible for cinema not to glamorize craziness, given that like movies
themselves, craziness brings forth images that aren’t there. It makes us
see things, which is one reason why theater (from a Greek verb meaning "to
see") has traditionally been the medium for exploring it. Alone of the
recent plays and movies about mind and madness, The Dazzle chooses to
glamorize neither. It’s what gives the play, for all its hijinks, a flavor
of tragedy. Greenberg doesn’t value brilliance per se, but he manages to
convey some inkling of what it means to have transcendent thoughts. There’s
a wonderful speech, one of two from which the play derives its title, in which
Langley describes a piece of string that he’s kept since infancy. "I
first saw this when I was in my crib," he murmurs lovingly:

I looked
up–and saw it–it was–dazzingly colored–nothing is ever lost
on me, nothing ever leaves–it was the first thing of its kind I’d
seen–and though I didn’t know about words yet, I wanted desperately
to name it… I remember the desperation…there were tears off to the
left–a glittering of porcelain below–and a spoon with the sweet white
was thrust into my mouth–and piano notes played in the next room–and
everything was entirely itself, and all at the same time.

a beautiful evocation of the piecemeal way an infant experiences the world.
It also suggests the infantile selfishness of the career neurotic, his naive
willingness to feed off the love and goodwill of others. "All the frail,
frail people with their iron imperatives," Homer laments, in the other
title speech, contemplating the spectrum of different types of nutcase "that
modern life presents in such dazzling array."

Oh, I mustn’t
sit here, I must sit there; I can’t wash dishes, I’m
afraid of foam; I couldn’t possibly work, I have a terror of energy–they’re
everywhere, it seems: The People Who Simply Can’t. And they have
a simple thing in common: they always get their own way.