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Bleak Houses

Memo to Count Tolstoy: All unhappy families can also be tiresomely alike (see The Butterfly Collection and The Beginning of August).

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Family affairs: Marian Seldes and Brian Murray in The Butterfly Collection.  

Theresa Rebeck is an inconsistent playwright, alternately interesting and tiresome. Her latest, The Butterfly Collection, is by turns over- and underwritten and, in the last as well as the first analysis, profoundly pointless.

Paul, a Nobel Prize-winning novelist (on the evidence of this play, a more than usually contestable award), is struggling with his latest fiction in his Connecticut country house. With him are his wife, Margaret, an occasionally secret collaborator; son Frank, a mild-mannered antiquarian showing all the signs of homosexuality but eventually revealed as straight; and another son, Ethan, an actor who resents his father as much as his father does him. He has been coaxed back by Margaret after a long absence and has brought along his live-in girlfriend, Laurie. He is even more out of sorts than usual, because he considers having to read for a part in a minor theatrical production beneath his dignity. (As James Colby plays him, a reading seems entirely justifiable.)

The by now prolongedly blocked novelist is impatiently awaiting the arrival of Sophie, a graduate-student writer of the kind he has been using to bounce ideas and pages off, and who, ostensibly a secretary, must be more of a co-writer. (A practice that even the most ignoble Nobel laureate is unlikely to have stooped to.) Sophie proves to be a pretty, overanxious, often stammering young woman, sometimes unable to finish a spoken sentence.

In due time, Sophie is seduced by Ethan, which causes Laurie to threaten leaving him. Frank offers to take her in, but the offer is rejected, gently. Then Paul makes a pass at Sophie and is gently rejected. Paul delivers long and senseless speeches about why theater in general is sorry stuff -- something this play does little to disprove -- and, to Ethan's anger, belittles acting, about which he seems curiously well informed. Fights erupt as Margaret scurries about pouring conciliatory oil on troubled writers, actors, and mistresses. The play's title refers to the butterfly collection of the grandfather about whom Sophie is writing; it huffs and puffs to become a symbol for something but fails to do so.

There is, however, one telling passage. Sophie has reluctantly allowed Paul to read her piece about her grandfather, and elicits a lecture: "You've got about six different tones here, so I don't actually know what you're trying for. . . . Sentences collapse, images are not fully developed, there's a carelessness in the thinking . . ." She tries to bargain him down to just "two tonal shifts," but he demurs: "This is graduate-school bullshit. I don't even know what you're talking about." What the play lacks in drama, it makes up for in autocritique.

Bartlett Sher has directed elegantly in Andrew Jackness's neatly Chinese-boxy set. Betsy Aidem is a decent if drab Laurie, James Colby an obvious Ethan, Reed Birney a fine Frank. Maggie Lacey is a rather amateurish Sophie, and the good Brian Murray, woefully miscast as Paul, shouts a lot in a vain attempt to compensate. But the play really belongs to Marian Seldes, who floats, hovers, slithers, twists into salamandrine shapes, while enunciating with magnificent mellifluousness and perfect, usually hilarious timing. This is old-school acting of the high-flying kind -- higher than persiflage, camp, or pogo-sticking -- and the only thing that makes The Butterfly Collection collectible and delectable.

Jackie, the young father of an infant daughter, has suddenly been abandoned by his wife, Pam, whereabouts unknown. His youngish stepmother, Joyce, volunteers to baby-sit gratis in view of his straitened circumstances and her recent widowing and resultant loneliness. Ben, the young housepainter, dawdles preternaturally, hoping, like Jackie, that Pam (with whom he is in love) will come back. Ted, a neighboring black man who mows lawns, keeps popping in with or without his lawn mower (he is Jackie's lover). Pam, too, makes clandestine nocturnal visits through a secret door in the fence to embrace her daughter, whose otherwise fanatically fussed-over bassinet, complete with baby, is mysteriously left out in the garden at night.

Jackie, who is as nervous as nine cats, has left elaborate notes for Joyce about what she must or must not do while baby-sitting, which certainly do not include knocking over the bassinet -- the very first thing she does as she rushes toward the ringing phone, which she is not supposed to answer. No more is she supposed to chat protractedly on the phone with a girlfriend and invite her over, both of which she does: Some people cannot master the art of baby-sitting. But none of this is as remarkable as the ending, which gives a whole new meaning to the concept of extended family.

Still, there are a lot of funny lines in Tom Donaghy's The Beginning of August, which prevent it from becoming the end of endurability. Mary Steenburgen, who, as Joyce, gets most of them, runs -- or, rather, prances -- with them to good, if somewhat excogitated, effect. Why does this hyperactivity not take off the way Marian Seldes's does in The Butterfly Collection? I suppose because Steenburgen tries to stretch realism to grotesque extremes, whereas Seldes marches, or sashays, to a different drummer so theatrically as to create her own laws. Representational art must play by certain rules that abstraction, playing by others, can flout. The likable Garret Dillahunt aptly conveys Jackie's sweatiness under the collar, even if he often lets it extend to the entire shirt. Jason Ritter's Ben is appropriately callow; Ray Anthony Thomas's Ted, suitably mellow. Mary McCann's appeal has always been hard to find; as Pam, she seems to have lost it altogether. Neil Pepe has directed in broad but effective comic strokes. Scott Pask's set is serviceable, although the grass in this supposedly overgrown garden looks rather skimpy, and might have taken a leaf from the abundant greensward in bam's recent Richard II. The savvy lighting by Christopher Akerlind easily made up for the cost of the full-page program insert serving no other purpose than to emend Chris into Christopher.

Lifegame is an improvisational show in which the members of the Improbable Theatre company act out autobiographical scenes related onstage by a just barely met guest. Inasmuch as I found the guest considerably more amusing than the putative professionals, I saw little point in lasting beyond intermission.


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