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The Collection and A Kind of Alaska

This double-bill of Harold Pinter one-acts features Lisa Emery in a true tour de force performance.

Lisa Emery and Rebecca Henderson
in A Kind of Alaska
(© Ari Mintz)
Harold Pinter's double bill The Collection and A Kind of Alaska, now being presented by the Atlantic Theater Company at the East 13th Street Theatre, allows New York theatergoers another chance to relish in the work of one of the world's greatest playwrights, albeit with somewhat mixed results.

In The Collection, the taunting 1961 playlet which serves as the evening's curtain-raiser, James (Darren Pettie), husband to Stella (Rebecca Henderson), forces a meeting with Bill (Matt McGrath), housemate to Harry (Larry Bryggman) to accuse him of an affair with Stella. That's apparently what she told James, and they're the supposed facts to which Bill admits.

But who knows where the truth lies? Certainly not James, Harry, or the audience. Maybe not even Pinter, who helped define 1960s drama with his unshakable belief that human behavior can never be fully understood. Yet as guided by director Karen Kohlhaas, on Walt Spangler's two living-rooms with fire-engine-red phone booth between and acted with clipped speech by the four players, The Collection feels less a vital revival of the work than a perfectly preserved period piece.

No such feeling occurs during the instantly -- and consistently -- involving A Kind of Alaska. Here, Deborah (Lisa Emery) wakes from a 29-year sleep caused by encephalitis lethargica. Observed by Hornby (Bryggman), the physician attending her throughout the extended slumber, she attempts to understand her whereabouts, and her wrangling provides the opportunity for an actor's tour de force -- and Emery grasps the chance and refuses to let go until she's conveyed the text's every nuance.

Spending most of the play's relatively brief time sitting upright on a bed in an antiseptic hospital room, Deborah initially can't come to grips with no longer being the 16-year-old she was when last aware of herself. She only becomes further confused by the arrival of her now 41-year-old younger sister, Pauline (Henderson), who happens to be married to (and estranged from) Hornby.

As Deborah, Emery speaks with the excitable tones of a teenager, her eyes constantly searching the surroundings for explanations that don't come. She fitfully rearranges the sheets covering her, sometimes pulling them up to shield herself from a truth -- a condition Hornby describes as "a kind of Alaska."

When Deborah leaves the bed briefly, convinced she'll have no trouble walking, she stumbles and only slowly gains her footing before reeling giddily in a young girl's dance of joy. Back in bed and still refusing to accept her predicament, she endures a frightening bodily spasm that suggests she's regressing to her lifeless state. Fortunately, Pinter arranges it so that it doesn't quite happen.


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