Betsy Aidem, Reed Birney, James Colby,and Marian Seldes in The Butterfly Collection(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Betsy Aidem, Reed Birney, James Colby,
and Marian Seldes in The Butterfly Collection
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Although she has a number of plays and productions to her credit, Theresa Rebeck gives quite the opposite impression with The Butterfly Collection, the family fracas that has just opened at Playwrights Horizons. This piece seems to be the handiwork of an extremely bright student who wants to write for the theater but doesn't really know how to do so; just study the best examples of stage literature in order to figure out the formula and then follow it, she seems to have concluded.

Rebeck doesn't seem to have realized that mastering technique must be combined with developing an original voice. It's as if in preparing The Butterfly Collection, she boned up on Shakespeare (King Lear), Chekhov (any of the great works), O'Neill (Long Day's Journey Into Night), Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman), Herb Gardner (I Never Sang for My Father), and Donald Margulies (Collected Stories). Then she took the parts of those plays she deemed essential and/or intriguing, carpentered them together, and work she expected would automatically join the ranks of its predecessors.

As The Butterfly Collection begins, Sophie, a young writer who's taken the job of amanuensis to a 70-ish Nobel Prize winner, says a few words to the audience about a valuable butterfly collection that fell out of her family;s hands some time before. This young woman has arrived at the Connecticut country house where she'll be working. Already on the premises and charging the air with discontent is Ethan; he's the elder of the Nobel-winner's two sons, a 40-year-old actor with little to show for time spent on the boards. He has brought along his understanding and supportive girlfriend, Laurie, for what could be an extended stay with his father, Paul, whom he greatly disdains, and his mother, Margaret, who has spent much of her adult years favoring Paul and serving as the buffer between him and his fulminating dad. Ethan's brother, Frank, an antique shop-owner brother who has trouble finishing sentences, is also on hand trying not to breathe too much air.

Having gathered under one roof, the characters come together and drift apart in various groups of two or three or four or six over a period of a few weeks (the Chekhov influence), keeping or sharing secrets and airing their accumulating resentments. Foolish, tense, bombastic Paul rails against his sons (the Shakespeare influence), while Margaret does her best to mollify father and offspring (the Miller influence). Under a deadline to produce his newest novel or return the already-spent advance, Paul allows Sophie, whose prose he denigrates, to write some of his book--including the section that comes to be considered a breakthrough for him (the Margulies influence). As she inadvertently walks in on squabbles, Sophie is pursued by both Paul and Ethan, so that the long-suffering Laurie finally huffs off to the City. At one point, Paul, always ready to bait Ethan, knocks his son's calling: "I never fully understood the appeal of the theater," he roars, almost precisely as did a similar character in last season's Wrong Mountain.

Rebeck is not without resources; her dialogue can suddenly ring out. Towards the end of the play, Margaret--who finally confronts Ethan about his selfishness--says, "There's a cost to things," and the remark zings through the air like a hurled grenade. There is also a certain fluidity and inevitability to the characters' coming and goings; Rebeck realizes that family members can often be onto one another and have their reasons for speaking up or remaining silent. For example, Laurie's awareness of Ethan's dissembling and her caginess about letting on feels exactly right.

Yet there is much that is woefully amiss here, some of it laughable. While it may be true that the greatest artists have had their works enhanced by others--often intelligent and creative spouses relegated to the shadows--it's unlikely that a Nobel Prize-winning writer would allow a student to participate in his work to the extent that Paul does. It's also ludicrous that her contribution would be the one that an agent would single out as a huge step forward in the great man's output. Oh, the irony of it all, Rebeck is clearly thinking.

Aidem, Birney, and Seldesin The Butterfly Collection(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Aidem, Birney, and Seldes
in The Butterfly Collection
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Ethan, wrapped up in himself and in wanting to land a role for which he has vainly refused to audition, ultimately registers as despicable. Frank's inability to complete thoughts becomes tiring, even more so when Sophie contracts the same aborted-verbiage disease. And what about Sophie? Who is she? All Rebeck gives out is the saga of the lost butterfly collection. (As a gift for her, Ethan and Frank--but mostly Ethan--find a bunch of mounted and framed butterflies.) Hasn't Sophie her own family, her own friends, any of whom she might think to contact during the long summer when the action takes place?

Bartlett Sher, who earlier this year impeccably directed a rare revival of Harley Granville-Barker's Waste, does what he can to keep everyone moving into and out of each other's way. He's greatly helped by Andrew Jackness's ingenious set; the gauzy and silently shifting country house walls Jackness has devised say more about frequently clandestine but transparent familial behavior than anything Rebeck layers into her speeches.

The actors, however, have to deliver these speeches, and that puts them at a disadvantage. The usually superb Brian Murray keeps his voice at a high pitch in his role as that old bugaboo, the Genius Monster. (Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Woody Allen write this figure with more aplomb.) The same problem of making an ogre worthy of prolonged attention besets James Colby as Ethan. Maggie Lacey as Sophie, buffeted between Paul and Ethan and at sea about her talent, is probably more irritating than the character needs to be. Reed Birney as the stumped Frank and Betsy Aidem as thoughtful Laurie make themselves more than palatable. But only Marian Seldes, flitting across the stage in loose and flowing garments, is able to give a loose and flowing performance as a woman who knows diplomacy will only get her so far with two people she loves and fears. The tall, angular Seldes has had a bag of tricks for upwards of 50 years now, but she always seems to be able to make them surprising.

Along with other pointers that Rebeck has picked up in her study of playwriting, she's learned about symbols, and she has deployed a few in her unsuccessful script. There's a plant (or, maybe, there are a couple of them) that Margaret and Frank worry over, unsure whether it's afflicted with fungus or only covered with dust. If the plant were seen to represent Rebeck's play, the answer would be dust: the dust of dramas past. And then there are those butterflies under glass. They're intended as a cue to the characters' plights, yet they also serve as symbols of the plays Rebeck has attempted to emulate but from which she has, instead, effectively drained the life.