Friday, October 24, 2008

Shaky Foundation

The Master Builder
Written by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Frank MacGuinness
Directed by Ciaran O’Reilly
Starring James Naughton, Herb Foster, Kristin Griffith, Letitia Lange, Charlotte Parry, Doug Stender, Daniel Talbott

Performances from October 10 to November 30, 2008
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street

Griffith and Naughton in
The Master Builder
(photo: Carol Rosegg)
The Master Builder is a genuine classic that’s not staged that much; of course, its last time on Broadway was in Tony Randall’s wrongheaded 1992 National Actors Theatre production. The Irish Rep’s revival–of course Ibsen was born in Norway, not Dublin—is based on playwright Frank MacGuinness’ adaptation.

The “master builder” is Halvard Solness, a successful middle-aged architect who feels harried by “young people” nibbling at his feet. (Ibsen wrote the play near the end of a long and distinguished career, as up-and-comers like Knut Hamsun looked to usurp his enviable position in the theater.) Solness and his devoted wife Aline live in a well-appointed home which doubles as his studio office, where Knut Brovik–the old man whose business Solness took over years before–Brovik’s draftsman son Ragnar and Ragnar’s fiancée Kaja work for the great man. Also on hand are the Solness’s friend Dr. Herdel, and the play’s catalyst, Hilde, an effervescent 22-year-old who returns to claim the “kingdom” she insists the architect promised her 10 years earlier while he worked on a church in her hometown.

These people’s interactions–and the sympathetic if unflattering portrait of the genius artist–make The Master Builder a most compelling drama that can challenge the best directors and performers. MacGuinness’ acceptable adaptation aside, Ciaran O’Reilly’s staging grasps the outlines of Ibsen’s masterpiece without burrowing deeper into the messy convergences which mark its complex characterizations.

The director is hampered less by the Irish Rep’s postage-stamp sized space than his two leads. As Hilde, Charlotte Parry alternates screams and whispers–neither very audibly–while conveying little of this eccentric young lady’s undeniable charms. To be fair, Hilde is a very difficult role to pull off, yet Parry misses nearly all of its subtlety.

Likewise, James Naughton’s Halvard rarely exudes the haughty grandeur of this egocentric artist. Although he certainly looks the part with salt and pepper hair and neatly trimmed goatee, Naughton is too monochromatic to take the full measure of this complicated man, and when he does roar in anger or emphasis, it only serves to put the rest of his bland portrayal in sharp relief.

The others are fine, notably the wonderful Kristin Griffith, who enlivens the stock part of Aline with a fiery intelligence. But Ibsen’s classic drama is not titled The Master Builder’s Wife.

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