The Glass House
nytheatre.com review by Victoria Linchong
May 14, 2010
Offered on alternating nights by Resonance Ensemble, The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen and The Glass House by June Finfer are two vastly different plays written a century apart, both about architects quixotically attempting to realize impossible visions. In Ibsen's symbolist play, the aging titular character is inspired by a young girl to build immensely high towers and scale them as he once did. In an interesting parallel, Finfer's work is about the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's attempt to build a glass house so minimal as to be invisible. There is much food for thought and some find performances in these paeans to the fine line between genius and folly, but both productions falter when it comes to theatrical imagination.
In particular, Ibsen's richly symbolic drama The Master Builder is not well served by being staged like a drawing room play. One of Ibsen's last plays, The Master Builder is widely regarded as the first of a quartet of "symbolist" plays, in which the playwright abandoned his renowned social critiques to explore more metaphorical and psychological terrain. Ibsen was never a kitchen sink realist, though. Even plays that addressed such mundane things as syphilis or a stifling marriage or poisonous baths were elevated by heightened language and the use of symbolic images—the vine leaves that Hedda Gabler pines for are not literal; the white horse in Rosmersholm is much more than just a white horse. The Master Builder, like many of Ibsen's plays, draws from a mythological pre-Christian Norway. Hilde Wangel, a mysterious young woman, appears out of the blue and like Rumpelstilskin, demands that Halvard Solness fulfill a promise he made to her ten years previously to spirit her away "like a troll" and build her a kingdom, complete with a "castle in the air." She finds a different man than the hero she remembers hanging a ceremonial wreath at the top of the church tower he built in her home town. On the downward slope of middle age, Solness is now paranoid of being superseded by his apprentice Ragnar and wracked with guilt over building his career on the ashes of his wife Aline's family home. Seeing himself anew in Hilde's eyes, however, Solness is inspired to be a braver man and agrees to repeat his wreath-hanging feat for a soon-to-be completed tower.
As directed by Eric Parness, The Master Builder is solid, stagy, and emphatically 19th century. Much of the magic of the play is lost with actors scurrying around myriad tables and chairs on a set by Jo Winiarski that could double for that of a Somerset Maugham play. Not that I'm advocating minimalism for Ibsen, but it does seem that a play in which two people extemporize about Vikings and trolls would be better served with more imagination. The sprinkling of otherworldly music and purple lighting really doesn't do much to elevate the prosaic staging. Other choices encumber this production: Aline Solness is clad in a sumptuous hourglass red-and-black beaded gown, which seems oddly out of place for a character so mournful that Hilde comes away from her feeling as if she had "emerged from a tomb." And while Chris Ceraso is a likable actor, he is just not enough of a formidable presence to be believable as a man whose all-consuming ambition hobbles everyone around him. Without a Solness of towering stature, this Master Builder is missing a cornerstone that is fundamental to the structure.
In contrast, Harris Yulin in The Glass House is a commanding and complex Mies van der Rohe, at once self-deprecating and self-important. Beginning with a monologue in which he chews on a cigar and advises the audience to "never talk to a client about architecture," The Glass House charts the fraught creation of the Farnsworth House, which has alternately been revered as an architectural masterpiece and reviled as a barely livable indulgence in extreme minimalism. The play begins in 1945 when Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a wealthy physician, is seeking an architect to build her a country house that would also be a "work of art." Van der Rohe is recommended to her by Philip Johnson, at that time the curator of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art and an aspiring architect. Seeing an opportunity to realize his vision of a glass house that is "almost nothing," van der Rohe accepts the commission, only to clash with his patron, first over her desire for day-to-day things like a closet, and then over her jealousy when he resumes his relationship with sculptress Lora Marx.
Playwright June Finfer has a nice touch in bringing these factual figures to life. In particular, she has created a fascinating character in Philip Johnson, alternately a selfless champion of van der Rohe's talents and jealous sycophant, nimbly played by the mercurial David Bishins. Finfer does less well with the plot and central conflict, however, which verges on tabloid in dwelling on the triangular relationship between van der Rohe, Farnsworth, and Marx. Rather than a power struggle between two strong-willed people that ends in a stalemate, the play devolves into the love life of the rich and famous. Maybe the trajectory of Farnsworth from confident collaborator to scorned woman would have elicited more sympathy from me if director Evan Bergman permitted the elegant Janet Zarish, who plays Farnsworth, to emerge out of her severe 1940s suits and let down her coiffed hair for a moment. Bergman also encounters problems with the drawing room set that the production shares with The Master Builder. The jumps in time and the leaps from tete-a-tete to inner monologue are weighed down by a troupe of actors disguised as either waiters, laborers or draftsmen endlessly moving mid-century furniture in and out. The play would have benefited from a scenic design that would allow for more fluid transitions, a scenic design that is perhaps more in keeping with van der Rohe's streamlined vision. Van der Rohe was fond of the aphorism "less is more" In the case of this production, he may have been right.