It is hard to imagine a more perfectly timed production of a play than Torn Space Theater’s staging of Harold Pinter’s “The Collection.” It is too strange of a connection, or too perfect of one.
Characteristic of Pinter’s work, it’s confrontational, unsettling, even disorienting. Time moves at its own uneven pace. Comedy and drama turn on each other like foes in a duel. Perhaps there’s not a better case study for audience manipulation than in a play like this. It threatens with a cut clean enough so that you can’t feel the blade.
It’s not a stretch to call this a kind of terrorist theater. Given the current political landscape, it’s impossible to separate the era of "alternative facts" from the ideas on Pinter’s page. Torn Space chose “The Collection” for its 2017 season months before the political threats became reality. There's nothing new about politicians who lie, but the denial of the very notion of truth is a troubling fact that must be understood if it ever going to be defeated. Torn Space does us a great service in studying this model.
The 1961 play is set in London, England, but could take place anywhere, and at any time, and still feel chillingly local. It involves two couples and the strange interactions between the four of them. One man accuses another man of having an affair with his wife; back-and-forth conversations about the veracity of this claim ensue. Language is abrupt. As per Pinter’s notes, a simple set provides shadowbox dioramas of each of their living rooms. This is important to knowing the playwright’s complete vision. The play’s physical world is necessary to define its intellectual space—how we compartmentalize; how we are animals; how we are prototypes.
This is Torn Space, so abstractions are in order. Co-directors Dan Shanahan and Melissa Meola have some delicious material into which to mold their theatrical voice, which is often ethereal, modal, even surreal. Time and space are strange bedfellows on their stages, and where the theater often creates their own works to follow suit, their occasional dip into the popular canon can mean strange revisions. This is not always necessary or well-executed, but it works masterfully here. With due respect to Mr. Pinter, this “Collection” feels original and native.
Kristina Siegel’s bright set is loyal to the playwright’s direction but also quite innovative. Given the narrowness of the space’s stage, Siegel provides a divider wall that pivots between the two homes. When action shifts, an actor physically moves the wall to open up their space, creating a forced perspective that adds dizzying visual depth and potent subtext. Siegel washes the set in a bright palette, which in tandem with costume designer Jessica Wegrzyn’s stylish color stories, evokes a pretty distraction for the play’s turmoil. If nothing looks as it feels, this design team has done their job.
Our cast of four does a superb job lifting this boulder. Buffalo newcomer Nicholas Bernard gives a simmering portrayal of fashion designer Bill, holding tight to Pinter’s calmness as he receives James’s jilted-husband accusations. When Bill does respond with volume—the way we might project on him to—he is freed. Bernard plays Bill as a perpetrator, stealing power from his accuser and turning the tables on him. Watch for Bernard’s skillful nuance, and his dance moves.
Stan Klimecko plays a visibly vengeful James. There are times when I wish Klimecko’s interpretation maintained the coldness of his castmates, especially that of scene partner Willie W. Judson, Jr., who evokes a most sly balance of Pinter’s objectives. But that wouldn’t work dramatically. I warmed to Klimecko’s live and active performance. Courtney Turner also appears uneven at times, though she has her strengths.
I trust Shanahan and Meola in their direction here, given their preciseness in every other crevice. I wondered how their co-direction played out, where it’s apparent. The more I thought about it, the less it mattered: to Pinter’s point, there is great dimension in truth.
3.5 (out of 4 stars)
What: "The Collection"
When: Through March 10 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Where: Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Ave.
Tickets: $25 except for fundraiser performances on March 2 ($75-$125 with dinner) and March 9 ($35).