Saturday, May 25, 2013

NYC Theater: “The Master Builder,” “The Weir,” “Colin Quinn: Unconstitutional”

The Master Builder
Written by Henrik Ibsen; adapted by David Edgar; directed by Andrei Belgrader
Performances through June 9, 2013
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theatre, Brooklyn, NY

The Weir
Written by Conor McPherson; directed by Ciaran O’Reilly
Performances through July 7, 2013
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY

Colin Quinn: Unconstitutional
Written and performed by Colin Quinn; directed by Rebecca A. Trent
Performances through June 3, 2013
Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street, New York, NY

Turturro and Schmidt in The Master Builder (photo: Stephanie Berger)
Henrik Ibsen’s plays have had it tough in New York recently: last season’s Enemy of the People with Richard Thomas and the Pearl Theatre’s Rosmersholm were both so-so stagings. But The Master Builder, one of the Norwegian master’s towering final works, seems to get it worst. This warts and all autobiographical portrait of a great architect who’s fatally misunderstood and fatally flawed, is difficult going for even the best theater companies. Tony Randall’s floundering National Actors Theatre 1992 production came to grief, as did the Irish Rep’s 2008 version, even with an actor of the stature of James Naughton in the title role.

Now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Romanian director Andrei Belgrader’s The Master Builder, from playwright David Edgar’s crudely overexplicit adaptation, features John Turturro as the brilliant Halvard Solness, whose yearning for artistic perfection has destroyed his own life and those around him. Unfortunately, this production fails on nearly every level, as if no one associated with it has grasped—or, indeed, was even aware of—Ibsen’s profundity.

Turturro, always (for better or worse) contemporary in aspect, is all wrong for Halvard: he has no gravitas or tragic nobility. His real-life spouse Katherine Borowitz plays Halvard’s wife Aline as a Stepford zombie, while Wrenn Schmidt turns Hilde, whose animated and irresistible presence perks up Halvard and his art, into a squeaky-voiced Kristin Chenoweth sound-alike who’s very resistible. The others can do nothing in their supporting parts.

Belgrader makes little sense of the complexities of Ibsen’s strained relationships, missing the humor and, ultimately, tragedy for more blatant symbolism. Santo Loquasto’s ludicrously slanted jungle gym set dominates the stage throughout; Belgrader’s final image of Halvard approaching his destiny by climbing a leaning tower raises a question (not “begs the question,” as adapter Edgar mistakenly has it): did Ibsen set his play in Pisa? That might explain Turturro’s presence, but not much else.

Keating, Butler and Gormley in The Weir (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Conor McPherson’s The Weir—despite winning the Olivier Award for Best Play in 1997—isn’t much of a play. Ninety minutes of eerie yarns told by visitors to an Irish countryside bar: if their gift of gab is enough, then you may enjoy it. If you want more, you may find The Weir wanting.

The supernatural stories these people tell involve ghosts and fairies, but despite Ciaran O’Reilly’s fluid staging on Charlie Corcoran’s wonderfully lived-in bar set, none of it coheres or builds to any dramatic climax. Their tales are told, they leave the bar and the play ends. It is, however, amusing to listen to these Irish men and lady, played exemplarily by Dan Butler, Billy Carter, Sean Gormley, John Keating and Tessa Klein.

McPherson’s habit of presenting the supernatural in his plays came to a head the lone time he told a real story, Shining City, where he desperately dragged in a frightful spirit to give the audience a final scream. While The Weir (which refers to a barrier across a nearby river, seen in a photo on the bar wall) doesn’t revert to such a stratagem, its weirdness is all too transparent.

Colin Quinn: Unconstitutional (photo: Mike Lavoie)
A few years ago, comedian Colin Quinn performed Long Story Short on Broadway, a quick trip through world history. The fast-talking Brooklyn comic, off Broadway this time, now presents Colin Quinn—Unconstitutional, in which he discusses American political history from the Founding Fathers to today. As always with Quinn, there are more misses than hits, but his approach does yield occasional comic insights.

Although Quinn trods a lot of ground in his 70-minute routine—likening US history to a drunken binge in a local tavern, from which citizens are only shaking off the inevitable hangover—it’s on the periphery that he finds his cleverest material. Such asides include his rebuke to Bruce Springsteen as “champion of the working man” while playing concerts that drag on so long that many audience members might get in trouble with their real bosses for getting to work late the next day. There’s also his unique take on hunting, saying it shouldn’t be called a sport because one side has no idea what’s going on.

Quinn takes mild shots at presidents past and present, while describing himself as “pro-choice, pro-gun, pro-gay marriage and pro-death penalty”—in other words, he’s “anti-overcrowding.” While his jokes are rarely trenchant, at least he tackles politics from left of center, which in a sane country would be the center.

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