Even though they never really worked for a living and apparently never threw anything away, those pack rats known as the Collyer brothers of New York City have cut a remarkably broad swath through the clutter of popular culture. The story of their lives — and creepy deaths — in their Manhattan junk palace in the 1930s and '40s inspired Richard Greenberg's superb play “The Dazzle,” (seen at Steppenwolf a decade or so ago), a more recent play by Michael McKeever called “Stuff,” novels by E.L. Doctorow and Marcia Davenport, and numerous nonfiction accounts of how they lived and died and what garbage came out of their house when they did.
There's no question that hoarders fascinate us — they even have their own reality-TV show — not least because they are, simultaneously, examples of mostly harmless human eccentricity and cautionary extrapolations of something dangerous that many of us recognize in ourselves (although, for the record, I get enormous pleasure from filling a trash can). But when you've got a story already this well-told, you need to probe a little deeper than Mark Saltzman does in “Clutter,” which had its Midwest premiere Thursday night.
Produced commercially with non-Equity actors by Wendy Kaplan's MadKap Productions and directed by Wayne Mell of the Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest, “Clutter” is mostly a straight-up account of the Collyer tale, told so as to emphasize the mystery of their deaths (their house at 128th Street and Fifth Avenue was, famously, filled with booby traps to repel the curious and the unwelcome). We learn of the brothers (exuberantly played by Andrew J. Pond and Edward Kuffert) through the police detective (the solid Joe Mack) who is obliged to investigate their situation after someone calling himself Charles Smith telephones the precinct to report a dead body inside 2078 Fifth Avenue.
We watch the two working-class police officers (Michael Bullaro is a junior patrolman) explore the atrophied abode and make an array of strange discoveries.
There are the beginnings here of the necessary deeper themes — the two investigating cops are brothers themselves, albeit of a very different stripe — and Saltzman does try to tease out a bit the question of why and how the Collyer brothers got this way and what that has to say about American life.
But the piece is structured far too much like a movie screenplay, full of short scenes that advance the plot more than the theme, when instead it needs to find a workable theatrical metaphor to extrapolate what we can learn from this tawdry tale. That problem is exacerbated by Mell's serviceable but often pedestrian production, which plods along without much imagination, and a set by Andrei Onegin that fails to really show us a house filled to the brim with clutter. The Collyers' lair actually looks quite appealing here — rather like a lovable antique shop — even though the characters are talking about narrow passageways and mountains of stuff, already filled with rats.
Saltzman, clearly, wanted to write a commercial story with some humor and suspense, and he and Mell have somewhat succeeded: Pond and Kuffert not only have quite the resemblance to pictures I've seen of the real Collyer brothers, but they forge a pair of intriguing, entertaining fellows, chased down by a couple of standard-issue Irish cops.
But that's not yet enough to cut through the clutter of a familiar yarn. Saltzman and Mell have yet to really find a reason for the Collyers to be in a theater, and for us to spend a night listening to their story.
When: Through March 11
Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $40 at 773-404-7336 or greenhousetheater.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times