'The Dazzle' review or 'Happy Daze'

The Dazzle, Richard Greenberg
Found 111, 15th December 2015

David Dawson and Andrew Scott play the real-life Langley brothers – two eccentric New Yorkers who obsessively hoarded their belongings and were eventually found dead, in 1947, in a prison of their own making. It’s one hell of a story and, in Simon Evans’ oddly glinting production, is performed in the bruisingly cramped Found 111 venue. Some of the scenes are so startlingly intense, it feels like we’re breathing in electricity. But Richard Greenberg’s play, ‘The Dazzle’ (2000), is a strange beast – romantic, cynical, gothic and surreal – and left me stunned but also cold, confused and angry.

Designer Ben Stones’ set looks like a glimpse at a once-plush living room: a still-shiny piano stands amid a pile of junk, with books tumbling overhead and objects scattered across the floor. The light is gloomy and will fade to darkness as Langley (Scott) and Homer (Dawson) gradually withdraw from the real life they wistfully spot gliding by their window. Initially, Evans’ production feels like a bizarre mash of  ‘Withnail and I’ and some forgotten Coward play, as Langley and Homer bicker and vie for the attention of young Milly Ashmore (Joanna Vanderham), a na├»ve little rich girl who longs to escape the ‘hell’ of Fifth Avenue. But once this one opportunity for escape is snuffed out – and Millie disappears – the shadows lengthen, the objects pile up and any semblance of reality is replaced by a surreal, Beckettian shimmer, as the brothers’ submit to their lonely fate.

Dawson and Scott deliver bold, audacious performances, which take a little getting used to. Scott plays a pianist who has become so obsessed with the tiny details in life that the pauses in his music have become more fascinating than the music itself. Dawson plays his long suffering brother who has looked after Langley ever since his mother told him: ‘You are for him.’ There is a lot in Greenberg’s play about the way in which an obsession with art might draw us away from reality – and perhaps that is why there is such an odd sheen to Dawson and Scott’s performances, which seem so committed to ‘dazzling’ us yet – as a direct result of this intention – never quite feel real.

There are heaps of literary references – book, poetry and music extracts pepper the play and there’s a strong fairytale element thread right through, with Millie going on to resemble a rather haunting Red Riding Hood figure. Beckett is everywhere, first with hints of Winnie’s mound in ‘Happy Days’ and Vladimir and Estragon’s endless waiting game and, later, as things get properly dark – Clov and Hamm’s horrible fate in ‘Endgame’. It’s a slightly confusing combination: Greenberg’s play seems to suggest that a life committed purely to part is an empty and futile one and yet the play itself is suffused with literary references. I still struggle to see how all the parts of the puzzle fit together.

And then there is Scott’s character, which is the one element in this wilfully bizarre but undeniably entertaining show that properly pissed me off. Make no mistake: Scott’s performance is, on one level, quite stunning. I’ve read this play a couple of times and Scott and Dawson make Greenberg’s dialogue sing and snag in ways I could never have dreamed of. But Scott’s character – Langley - bothers me greatly. This man, a profound artistic talent but socially incompetent, seems to be autistic. Scott plays him with fingers webbed at odd angles and a strangely modulated voice. He becomes wilder and weirder as the play progresses, until he is ultimately a collection of crazy tics and obsessions. It’s a deeply committed performance and, by the end, Scott is soaked in sweat. But it also feels a bit cheap; as if all the characteristics that an autistic person might possess have been isolated and enhanced in order to create a virtuoso but dishonest performance. It feels like the reality of an autistic person’s life has been sacrificed in the name of art. It’s dazzling, sure, but is it fair or true?