The Collection and A Kind of Alaska

Written by Harold Pinter; Directed by Karen Kohlhaas

Off-Broadway, Play
Runs through 12.19.10
Atlantic Theater at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street

Larry Bryggman, Lisa Emery and Rebecca Henderson in A Kind of Alaska. Photo by Ari Mintz.

BOTTOM LINE: The Atlantic Theater Company turns in a practically perfect Pinter production! See it and enjoy theatrical mastery on every level.

This production is sooo damn good -- nearly as good as the Thanksgiving dinner I ate the next day, while I was feeling thankful to have seen these two fantastic Pinter one-acts so beautifully realized. 

In The Collection, written in 1961, Pinter pits two couples against each other and embroils them in a mysterious web of lies, attraction, and competition, both sexual and professional. Director Karen Kohlhaas and her ensemble of actors have found the inner timing of the characters, so that the long Pinter pauses seem totally organic, as do the verbal sparring and subversive humor. Scenic designer Walt Spangler uses the thrust stage of the Classic Stage Company theater (note the production is not at the Atlantic’s own space in Chelsea) to create two picture perfect side-by-side London flats, separated only by a floating telephone booth used to wonderful effect. Bright and subtly humorous costumes designed by Bobby Frederick Tilly II perfectly capture the mod-moment of London in the early 60’s, and a detailed and inventive lighting design by Jason Lyons enhances the expert work of the actors and the skillful, almost choreographed staging by Kohlhaas.

In A Kind of Alaska, the designers have created a completely different world: a clean, cool, and strangely heaven-like room in a sanitarium. The one-act, written in 1982, contrasts in almost every way with The Collection, but the two are recognizably unified by Pinter’s singular style. In this piece, Pinter treats a very emotional subject -- the reawakening of a woman who had been in a suspended sleep for almost thirty years -- and in the text a kinder, gentler playwright is revealed. This same subject, inspired by the book Awakenings by Oliver Sachs and based on a true story, got the Hollywood treatment a few years back in a movie starring Robin Williams. Pinter’s one-act is as far from the Hollywood schmaltz factor as one can imagine, and yet the play, anchored in this production by a lovely and haunting performance by Lisa Emery, is deeply emotional, and includes moments of sweetness leavened by a melancholy undertone. I am unfamiliar with Pinter’s later work, and I never imagined the playwright, who is more often associated with violent psychological tension, intellectual rigour and dark humor than with sweetness, turning out a piece like this, but here it is. The signature psychological tension and mystery are still there, but they are mellowed by warmth and an enfolding empathy for the characters that is very unlike other Pinter works. 

When you have so many delicious ingredients including great material, astute performances, and innovative staging and design, your recipe is more likely to turn out right. But there is still that elusive cooking process that makes or breaks a meal, and director Kohlhaas does it right. She does not overlook a detail and creates a very appetizing evening of theater indeed. On this Thanksgiving weekend, I gained new insight into Harold Pinter’s oeuvre, and felt a deep appreciation that I was able to see a production that realizes the playwright’s work so completely.

(The Collection and A Kind of Alaska plays through December 19, 2010. Performances are Tuesdays at 8PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 8PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM and Sundays at 3PM. There is no matinee on December 1st. Performances take place at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. Tickets are $65.00 and are available by calling Ticket Central at 212.279.4200 or by visiting Tickets can be purchased in person at the Atlantic Stage 2 box office located at 330 West 16th Street. For more information call 212.645.1242 or visit