"We live in a culture of accumulation, where to have more is better. But in the land of abundance and plenty, how do you stop?" asks playwright Mark Saltzman. It's a question that weighs heavily on his mind lately, with the opening of Clutter imminent at the Colony Theatre. At the heart of the play is a whole lot of junk. Quite literally, we're talking tons of junk—piles of papers and parts of pianos and terrifying towers of unidentifiable objects belonging to the legendary Collyer brothers.
The real-life Collyers were the reclusive New York packrats who in 1947 became household names after one eccentric sibling was found dead in their junk-filled mansion and the other had ostensibly disappeared. This stranger-than-fiction scenario provides an opportunity for this prolific writer to dive into not just the clutter but in this case also something even messier: the clutterers.
"It's double-rubble story telling," says Saltzman with a laugh. "We start with finding the dead brother, meeting the cop who has to find a way into the house and his brother—so all the brother issues are on the table. And in searching through the house and solving the mystery, we see how the Collyers' compulsions built. They were rich—New York bluebloods—but they also lived without electricity. They fooled everyone."
The tale of Collyer clutter was one Saltzman, a native New Yorker, grew up hearing from his parents. "If your lived through the Collyer episodes, there was this primal terror that you could end up that way, and the story went into New York folklore. Any messy kid got, 'This room looks like the Collyer Brothers'!' and it sounded like the Boogeyman," he continues, with a mock shudder. Then, in researching these mythic figures of his childhood, Saltzman discovered something else that drove him to put them onstage. "The Brothers Who Never Threw Anything Out" was not just a bedtime story, it was a media event that took the Nation by storm. After the discovery of Homer Collyer's body, newspapers greedily played into the public's fascination with the mystery of the dead man covered in junk—and his missing brother, Langley.
"All of New York and the rest of the country wanted to know exactly what happened to him," explains Saltzman. " It was like if OJ had disappeared during the car chase. It hadn't been analyzed by network sociologists; there was just that animal understanding that a manhunt would sell two papers a day. Even in 1947, the press was figuring out how to extend the story to get a constant stream of copy, with headlines of 'Langley Spotted!' and offering rewards to find the fugitive." And then there was the unbelievable state of the once-grand mansion itself. "Every day they were dumping crap from the house. So a crowd gathered to watch what came out of the windows. Truly, for everyday New Yorkers, it was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
True stories—all right, true stories that rise a bit above the ordinary—are not unfamiliar territory for Saltzman, the author of numerous screenplays and works for the stage, including the popular musical The Tin Pan Alley Rag and Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood, a hit in its premiere at Laguna Playhouse last year which is being primed for a New York run and will soon travel to Kentucky's Pioneer Playhouse. Mr. Shaw is based on George Bernard Shaw's visit to MGM Studios in 1933, which involves Shaw and his wife hitchhiking on Pacific Coast Highway after an emergency plane landing in Malibu. "It's real life stuff that's the most fun," says Saltzman, again laughing. "You can never worry that someone in the audience thinks it s implausible."
But what about this time around? What will be the reaction to Clutter's preposterous plot twists and the freakishly obsessive brothers? In reality, Saltzman suggests that Homer and Langley aren't that different from any of us. Their clutter could very well be our own. "That truly is the nightmare that's in the back of all of our heads," he says. "Because in our world there's not a force saying 'Discard, Dispose, Give, Donate." We all know that the winner each day gets more stuff, whether it's visible or invisible. So the Collyers were carrying out the dictates of society, but in a very tangible way."
And what does Saltzman hope audiences will get from his newest play? He confesses his desire with a completely straight face: "They'll laugh, they'll cry, they'll clean out their closets."
"Clutter" will be presented by and at the Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Feb. 7-Mar. 7. $26-32. (818) 558-7000.