In language as in architecture, details count. So let’s consider the hyphen. Amy Freed titled her newest play, which received its world-premiere performance Saturday night at Artists Repertory Theatre, The Monster-Builder. What does that lowly building-block of a connective marker mean to the meaning of the title? Is the builder a monster builder – a monstrous example of the art and craft of designing buildings – or is he, in fact, a monster-builder: a designer who creates monsters; a modern Frankenstein? And if he is a Frankenstein of architects, just who or what are his monsters: the arrogant buildings that he foists upon the world, or the architect-acolytes he lures into his orbit?
Such questions buzz beneath the surface of Freed’s comedy like the unseen worker bees in a starchitect’s office. The Monster-Builder gives star billing to its audaciously egotistical title character, the internationally famous architect Gregor Zubrowski. Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Michael Elich, as thin and muscular and seductively uncomfortable as a Frank Lloyd Wright built-in chair, digs into the role with the mustache-twirling glee of a melodrama villain (“You must pay the rent!”) or a magical-elixir salesman or Don Juan or the Phantom of the Opera or Old Scratch himself. Each time you think he’s stretched his exaggerations as far as they can possibly go, he smiles and preens and stretches them a little farther yet.
Freed’s setup and plotting, which rely deliciously on the conveniences of coincidence, begin with the idealistic preservationist plans of a young married architect team, Rita (Allison Tigard) and Dieter (Gavin Hoffman), who hope to revive a decrepit old masterwork in a park and restore it as a “third place” stand-in for the old public Commons: a place for the people to call their own. The tale continues with Rita’s old college roommate Tamsin (Bhama Roget), a Judy Holliday type who happens to be Gregor’s latest girl toy; and a wealthy-climber client, Pamela (Robin Goodrin Nordli) who drags her savvy-cowboy husband Andy (Don Alder) and his hefty wallet along on all of her shopping sprees, which include, among other things, the design for a grand new house. When Gregor catches the scent of the preservation project in the park, and of Rita’s buried ambitions, the crosses are doubled, the hunt is on, and the fun begins.
Architects have taken something of a beating in literature and the theater, and Freed, the author of such appealing earlier plays as Restoration Comedy, The Beard of Avon, and Freedomland, gleefully joins the pile-on. In The Master Builder, the play whose title Freed’s own suggests, Ibsen’s Halvard Solness climbs too high and takes a fatal tumble. The Pritzker Prize-winning hero of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? hides a disastrously keen affection for a compliant four-legged friend (his appetite has nothing to do with chevre). And the less said about Howard Roark, the heroically individualist architect-hero of Ayn Rand’s breathlessly silly novel The Fountainhead, the better, except perhaps to note that Freed turns the tables on Rand: Gregor is Roark triumphant, his powerful traditionalist enemies turned into weaklings scrambling for crumbs. Similar stories play out in real life. Calatrava’s buildings-as-sculptures leak. The Museum of Modern Art demolishes and eats up its quieter and more subtle neighbor. Grand concert halls sprout mouse-ears to please their patrons. Billionaires commission bulging museum buildings that feel like fuzz pedals from ground level and look like electric guitars from above. Desert monarchies sprout dizzying towers that brag like Ozymandias. Urban-renewal “affordable housing” projects look like flimsy shoe boxes jammed together with no imagination and no breathing room. Even in a city like Portland, which prides itself on its street-level, people-oriented design and planning, the blend of power, money, and design that shapes the way we live has resulted in the mowing-down of vital neighborhoods for freeways, hospitals, shopping centers, upper-middle-class enclaves, and vague plans. (August Wilson’s Jitney, now at Portland Playhouse, also touches on some of these issues.) The city fell prey to the architecture-as-statement bug with Michael Graves’s notorious Portland Building (many of whose problems, to be fair, spring from the city’s cheapskate budget for the thing). And the idea of the Commons, which has become almost quaint in the four centuries since England began to pass its Inclosure Acts, has been muddied further by massive public projects such as Baron Haussmann’s 19th century razing and reinvention of massive stretches of Paris, and by the development deals that seem to be partly behind the Christie administration’s lane-closure scandal in New Jersey.
But traditions do change, and as the world’s population explodes, change becomes necessary. The questions are, what and how? And are starchitects the best people to carry it out? Fashion often determines who’s in and who’s out. England’s Prince Charles, a stout defender of architectural traditionalism (and among other things, organic farming), is derided in more sophisticated circles as a sentimentalist fool. Meanwhile, as lines get plainer and spaces starker, the people who actually live and work in buildings hold firm to the belief that a little grace and decoration feed the soul. Whether they make the connection or not, they long for Brunelleschi’s dome and the classical curves and proportions of Palladio. Yet the honest desire for tradition and familiarity can slip easily into the excesses of the McMansion and the indulgences of the never-was, and on the rock of his derision for such populist desires, Gregor builds his foundation and rests his case. On the outskirts of my home town a developer has built a Thomas Kinkade stone cottage, a garishly picturesque fantasy on steroids, which he uses as a model for prospective buyers who would like their own little Kinkade dream on their own little plot of land.
So, yes. The architecture trade is rife for satire, and Freed has at it. She’s especially good at filleting the pompous and often empty language of the business: at times, The Monster-Builder sounds a bit like Yasmina Reza’s theatrical exploratory surgery of the contemporary art world, Art. There’s something birdlike in Freed’s peck-peck-pecking at the foibles and corruptions of the building trade. It’s a specific sort of bird: not a Wren (as in Christopher) but a lark – a goof, a folly, a giddy spiral that rises and rises, like a Tower of Babel on the wing, daring the gods to destroy it as it spins its brittle confectionery to an assertive and breezily ridiculous cloud of froth. It gradually becomes clear that, as serious as her reservations about the state of architecture may be, and as many valid questions about it as The Monster-Builder raises, Freed is using the architecture world as an attractive backdrop to the broader comic possibilities of greed, power, vanity, and sex.
You know from the git-go that The Monster-Builder is an artificial construction, about as far from good old American realism as you can get and still play to wide audiences. The actors come out clipped and coiffed and Kaufman/Ferberish, with the boldly striding movements and precise pronunciations of Dinner at Eight, or maybe a revival of Boeing Boeing. The set is all stark white angles and glass and parts that move by remote control, a gash of egotistical clarity against an island cliff: designer Tom Buderwitz makes it look a little like the bad guys’ gorgeous hideaway near Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest.
Over-the-top melodrama, (literal) cliffhangers, some mystery, and a lot of crackling one-liners are laced through the play, and director Art Manke keeps it all rolling with a keen eye toward the timing and swiftness of farce. You could say the play promises more probing analysis of architectural issues than it delivers, but it’s a comedy, not an investigative essay in The Atlantic. The actors have a fine ensemble feel, each bringing a little different style of dish to the table, from Nordli’s wisecracking can-do whimsy to Roget’s moll moves to Alder’s bubble-bursting clods of practical dirt. And everybody seems to understand that Elich is the soloist, the virtuoso who gets to riff while the others keep the rhythm going. It’s a fun group of people to hang around with, as long as you don’t actually get caught up in their games or turned into their targets.
About that hyphen? See the show, and make the call for yourself. Either way, remember: monsters eat their young.
The Monster-Builder continues through March 2 at Artists Repertory Theatre, and is part of the Fertile Ground festival of new works. Ticket and schedule information here.