Hyphenventilating over ‘The Monster-Builder’

Amy Freed's world-premiere comedy at Artists Rep brings a little Babel to the world of starchitects

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?

Elich and Tigard, master and acolyte. Photo

Elich and Tigard, self-admirer and admirer. Photo: Owen Carey

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.

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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.

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9 Responses.

  1. Mike O'Brien says:

    Hi, Bob–

    As usual, your review is thoughtful, perceptive and kind. I always appreciate and enjoy the cultural context and analysis that you give to plays. Even ones that don’t deserve it.

    I would argue that this play fails in two ways: as a critique of contemporary architecture, and as farce.

    First, I note that your own criticism of architecture points to projects like freeways and shopping malls where no architect was in involved (freeways) or was only involved after a developer had set rigid parameters for floor area, parking and form, leaving the architect to only polish the details. There’s blame to go around but architects don’t deserve it all.

    Portland has been fortunate in that we do not have the wealth to attract starchitects, with the one exception of Michael Graves’ Portland Building (and we did get our all-time favorite public sculpture out of that disaster). Starchitects thrive in places like Dubai, London and LA where big egos and money want big statements. Our architecture firms, including Opsis Architecture, the sponsor of the play, are committed to design that serves the community and the client. You probably can’t find any architect in Portland who is not following LEED guidelines for sustainability, and some have accepted the Living Building challenge. Our architects are exactly the opposite of starchitects. So why do we need a play about the phenomenon? Shadenfreude?

    The play riffs off stale chestnuts of architectural criticism. Why are architects whose heyday was in the Bauhaus of the 1930s being dragged into a critique of today’s excesses? When a strong case could be made that their work was an attempt to counter authoritarian German society?

    OK, so architectural cliches, so what? It’s a farce, right? Like Moliere and the doctor in spite of himself? But this farce goes completely off the rails from zany if predictable, into chaotic absurdity. To make the starchitect a minion of Satan is to go from humorous critique to formless nonsense. When you can’t think of anything else, drag in a picture of the starchitect as Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect. This is a total fail as satire.

    Finally, where is the heart in this play? Why did ART want to produce it, other than to have a world premiere? It’s hard for me to see how it fits into ART’s history, or even in the same season as The Big Meal.

    Best, Mike

  2. Len Magazine says:

    Thank you both for your comments, Bob and Mike.
    For me it presents an opportunity to ask questions that take us beyond Portland, its attitudes and its architecture. It also offers an opportunity to look within our own community to see how, even limited wealth, changes the neighborhoods in both character and texture. And, finally, we have a sense of how, even an idealist, is corrupted by opportunity for fame and fortune. The last scene provides the heart for me because the idealists prevail. It gives one a sense of hope.
    Best to you both,
    Len

  3. Bob Hicks says:

    Good talking points, Mike and Len. Keep it up – and others, please join in. Mike, I understand your criticisms. You may well be right that the play fights old architectural battles rather than fresh ones, though starchitecture continues to spread around the globe. And in general, yes, it’s a phenomenon that Portland’s avoided: we have a lot of architects who are a lot closer to Rita and Dieter than to Gregor, and we do believe in street-level, human-scaled design. I brought up design and urban planning issues because architecture, engineering, and planning are separate but intimately linked, and the way that a city or region thinks about specific buildings often also reflects what it thinks about planning and big projects. Are you a freeway city? Are you a walking city? Are you a car or transit city? Do you believe in neighborhoods? What size are your city blocks? (Portland’s small ones have a big effect on what our buildings look like.) Architects are a big part of that conversation, and I imagine that Dieter and Rita are on board with that. I also happened to have looked through a bunch of historic photos recently of the streets and neighborhoods of old Paris that were wiped out by Haussmann’s grand redesign, and they made me think, there was a huge loss of vernacular architecture and vibrant neighborhoods that went along with this master plan; and that made me think of freeway projects and multi-billion-dollar bridges and neighborhoods like the NE Portland hospital zone and the Lloyd area that were razed and simply left empty for years, and that seems part of the picture, too.

    I honestly don’t know what I’d do if the MoMA/Folk Art decision in NY were left to me; I believe in preservation, but we can preserve ourselves into sterility. Same goes for Memorial Coliseum. If it’s gutted and redesigned inside in order to be made economically feasible, has what makes it worth saving in the first place already been destroyed?

    I probably should have made my point about the exploding world population more forcefully. It’s an issue that architects and planners must confront, and the Dieters are far more likely to do so successfully than the Gregors. I hope it came across that I actually have some sympathy for Prince Charles’s position, though I think he carries it to an extreme.

    So here we are, having what I hope is an interesting conversation about issues that, in the end, the play itself doesn’t specifically address – but we’re having the conversation BECAUSE the play exists. And I find that interesting, too.

    As far as the play’s farcical structure is concerned, it struck me as a bit meta: it uses the techniques of farce to upend the expectations of farce, and people are going to have divided opinions about that. Some will feel let down that it breaks away from the very logical rules of farce. Some will find the upending of the genre energizing. In a similar way, maybe, to the way that a lot of Parisians (and certainly a lot tourists) embraced those grand new boulevards.

    Best,
    Bob

  4. Tal Sanders says:

    For class review

  5. Mike O'Brien says:

    Hi, Bob–

    I completely agree there are valid and important issues to be explored around architecture (and urban planning, since you brought up Paris again). I’m just saying, this play does not do that. The book the playwright references as inspiration, From Bauhaus to Our House, was published in 1981. Tom Wolfe goes after people like Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, all architects whose prime was from the 1920s to 1950s. Today, more than half a century on, the issues are very different. I’d love to see a play that took on the likes of Frank Gehry and buildings like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

    Yes, Baron Hausmann destroyed the medieval streets of Paris to create its boulevards, to install a modern water and sewer system, and to create parks like Bois de Boulogne. And no doubt there were some lovely buildings and lanes lost in the process. But the Paris we enjoy today is his handiwork, and now we cherish the boulevards, the parks–and sewers! Cities have to either sprawl out or grow taller to accommodate more people and vehicles, and he chose to jump to 5 story buildings with wide arterial streets. I also note, Hausmann was not an architect, so I would not lump him in with the starchitects of the play.

    It’s a slender reed to defend the play by saying, here we are discussing architecture because of it. For example, we are discussing Hausmann, who did not come up in the play.

    I have never written a response to one of your reviews before, and I am not criticizing your (or Len’s) viewpoint. But for me, the play is a squandered opportunity to dig into today’s issues.

    I should add, the actors did the best job possible with the material, as did the production staff, so kudos to them.

    Best,

    Mike

    • Bob Hicks says:

      Sewers are good! And I wouldn’t argue that remaking Paris was wrong, only that something was also lost in the process. That’s inevitable, I think.

      Actually, I’m tickled that your arguing your case. A review should be just the starting point of a conversation.

  6. Owen Carey says:

    Well Baron Hausmann’s Paris has become the new normal – our contemporary version of old Paris, with it’s grand boulevards and beige buildings with their mansard roofs. the new quaint. Gone are the rat infested medieval neighborhoods that we still know through the photography of Eugene Atget. Then in the late 60s the Montparnasse tower was built – an icon of the new modernism – the tallest building in France; but it’s monolithic nature met up with some fierce criticism for being completely incongruent with Von Hausmann’s Paris. So no more modern sky scrapers were allowed in old Paris – nothing over seven stories! – and instead the young architects of modernism were allowed to build on the western outskirts of town in the area called La Defense – to become the new shining glass towered business center. But i must say that while the Montparnasse Tower seems an eyesore when viewed from the Sacré Coeur Basilica atop Montmartre, the views of Paris standing atop the Montparnasse Tower are quite supreme, and are in perfect alignment with the Eiffel Tower, the Champs de Mars, the Trocadero and la Defense- and the 360˚ views are a worthy visit. On another note, did you know that Frank Gehry had been commissioned to build low cost housing in the Pearl a few years back, when Paige Powell was doing her best to bring renowned artists work into the Pearl. His designs met with bureaucratic roadblocks at every turn, so he eventually abandoned the project. The common man of the Commons, if you will, had its way with the Starchitect. Personally, i think we all lost out.

    • Oregon ArtsWatch says:

      Owen, I’d forgotten about the Gehry flirtation – I remember it now. I think you’re right. Gehry might’ve done something really interesting, and now we’ll never know.

  7. Tony Greiner says:

    This play is outright dreadful. The attempts at comedy are as crude in the manner of a drunk redneck on a TriMet bus. The plot is ridiculous and preachy, and wit is absent in the script. As I walked out of the theater at the end of the first half, another departing victim said the best line of the night:

    “This play needs to be workshopped two more times, then thrown away.”

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