John Collier was a mordant midcentury wit known for his screenplays and for numerous short stories published in The New Yorker. A British expatriate, he wrote fantasy tales rich in twists and dramatic irony, delivered with a skeptical, upturned eyebrow. In other words, he’s the sort of writer who has fallen almost entirely out of style—a fate he would probably appreciate, but which Nightmares and Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier nonetheless seeks to correct. If the play is a bit of a museum piece, it is worth the price of admission.
Adaptor-director Ed Rutherford uses Collier’s story “Are You Too Late, or Was I Too Early?” as the play’s connective sinew. A mysterious man (played by the dynamic Black Button Eyes regular Kevin Webb) wakes in a gothic, green-walled sitting room and talks of a spectral woman he has sensed haunting his apartment. As his excitement to encounter her grows—to each his own, I suppose—he regales the audience with a collection of Collier’s yarns.
In “Squirrels Have Bright Eyes,” a man pretends to have himself taxidermied in order to win the heart of his huntress love; in “Pictures in a Fire,” a hard-up screenwriter gets stuck in the development deal from hell—literally. Two young lovers are undone by their obsession with each other’s demise in “Over Insurance,” and a terrible wife meets a terrible fate in “Incident on a Lake.” The final tale, taken from Collier’s “The Chaser,” is presented as a memory: The narrator recalls a young man who sought to buy a love potion from him and who failed to understand why it cost so much less than poison.
Other than making the target of this love potion a man instead of a woman, Rutherford’s fine adaptation mostly leaves the stories in their original states, allowing Collier’s tart, sardonic prose to do its work. (The author’s somewhat dated attitudes toward sex are also intact; the play probably won’t win awards for gender politics.) The only section that drags is the Hollywood tale, which lacks the meat to justify its length.
Following Webb’s lead, the energetic performers play all of their characters to the hilt—which is mostly welcome, though lighter stabs might sometimes be appropriate—and the human cast is augmented by puppets, designed by Jeremiah Barr, that are fully successful. Rutherford and choreographer Derek Van Barham keep things moving swiftly with plenty of DIY flourishes, although the lights often fail to keep up with the moving actors. While production is slight, therein lies some of its charm. Its simplicity pairs nicely with the bitter flavor of Collier’s stories, which is strong enough that only a drop will do.
Black Button Eyes Productions at the Athenaeum Theatre. Based on works by John Collier. Adapted and directed by Ed Rutherford. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 15mins. No intermission.