Making an eccentric millionaire hoarder into a likable character is a trick pulled off magically by Andrew J. Pond in the Madkap Production, “Clutter: The True Story of the Collyer Brothers Who Never Threw Anything Out.”
Pond is also a magician but it’s still an accomplishment to play Langley Collyer, a self-absorbed obsessive-compulsive, with flair. Edward Kuffert is more bombastic and oddly repulsive as the other Collyer brother.
Maybe I like my plays like I like my books: Based on fact. I enjoyed “Clutter” even though it is a tragic story of two men so overwhelmed by clutter it is the death of them.
When I was a newspaper reporter, I interviewed a hoarder. I talked with her in her overgrown, weedy yard because, I suppose, her house was so full of belongings there wasn’t room for me. She was news because the city was trying to evict her from house. She was among the most colorful people I’ve ever talked to because of her ability to articulately justify the abominable condition of her property.
Playwright Mark Saltzman humanizes the Collyer brothers in the same way. Who hasn’t kept some antique tchotchke with the thought, “This’ll be worth something someday?” The Collyer brothers simply took this concept to an extreme, filling their apartment with so many newspapers, musical instruments, car parts and garbage that they had to crawl through tunnels to get around.
“Clutter” is set in the ’30s and ’40s in New York City. Saltzman also artfully pulls off the complicated task of splicing together two time frames — the back story of the brothers’ hoarding and the primary story of the investigation of the death of one of the brothers by a pair of policemen, also brothers.
I attended the performance with members of the Chicago chapter of NAPO, the National Association of Professional Organizers. A few of them found the humor of the tragicomedy to be misplaced. These people see the ugly side of having too much stuff and they devote their professional lives to mitigating the effects of piles of junk in our lives.
Whatever your opinion of hoarders and humor, “Clutter” will make you reconsider the volume and organization of your own belongings. I’ve gotta go clean my purse.
“Clutter: The True Story of the Collyer Brothers Who Never Threw Anything Out” plays through March 11 at Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.