Reviewed by David Sheward
Presented by and at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42 St., NYC, Oct. 3-15.
Theresa Rebeck relies a little too heavily on her symbols in "The Butterfly Collection," the premiere production of Playwrights Horizons' 30th season. The titular lepidoporal curio is obvious in its literary intent. A Nobel Prize-winning novelist (Brian Murray) treats his family like the beautiful winged specimens, capturing them through his art, but killing them in the process. A pair of 17th-century miniature angels, acquired by one of the writer's sons (an antique dealer played by Reed Birney), serves a similar function. They are exquisite, but can't really fly—just like his brother, an attractive but self-centered actor.
Despite the heavy weight of these devices, the play manages to take wing. The aerial imagery is overused, but Rebeck's characters and their relationships ring true. There are fathers and sons in competition, siblings in rivalry, and lovers cheated upon. In addition, the state of the theatre is dissected, the closeness of art and life are illuminated, and the beauty of words and fiction is celebrated. It all makes a powerful package and a satisfying and rich play.
Director Barlett Sher, who brought life to the undiscovered Edwardian melodrama "Waste" last season, minimizes the play's faults by emphasizing the humanity and longing it expresses. His flowing production is abetted by Andrew Jackness' tasteful and economical set and Christopher Akerlind's versatile lighting. Together, they convey an entire country house on the tiny PH stage.
The six-member cast is something to behold. Brian Murray is a monster of egotism as the writer, yet he remains sympathetic, as does James Colby as his equally narcissistic actor-son. Reed Birney's gentle antiques dealer breaks your heart as the shyer brother who is always confined to the shadows. Betsy Aidem and Maggie Lacey are equally affecting. As for Marian Seldes, who plays the long-suffering yet witty mother, her experience and art show in every telling line-reading and graceful gesture. This constantly employed and always delightful actress deserves the long-unclaimed title of First Lady of the American Theatre.