Monday, November 3, 2008

The Master Builder

I’ve heard there’s a first time for everything, but experience had led me to believe that as far as the Irish Rep is concerned this wouldn’t be true. Their shows have consistently been first rate, so I assumed they always would be. Sorry to say, with the current staging of The Master Builder, I experienced a first at that theatre -- a really disappointing production.

Director Ciaran O’Reilly has mounted what sounds more like an initial run-through than a finished product. The weakest link is, unfortunately, the main character. James Naughton’s portrayal of Halvard Solness is stiff and lifeless. Every line is delivered in such a wooden monotone that I had trouble staying awake during the 90-minute first act. If it hadn’t been that I care about this play, I would have left at intermission.

I don’t know whether Naughton, a two-time Tony Award winner for his performances in musicals, was miscast or merely misdirected, but in the second most important role, that of Hilde Wangel, Charlotte Parry seems to have been both. Miscast because she seems too old and misdirected because she seems downright dangerous. Ibsen meant for Solness to feel threatened by youth, but not in the way Parry comes off. Her portrayal has a dark undercurrent that makes Hilde seem subversive. When she reminds Solness of the time she met him 10 years before when she was about 12, she tells him he kissed her many times. Rather than being playful and teasing, she sounds as if she’s about the spring a child sexual abuse suit on him. This is not how it should be. Hilde should be youthful, fresh and idealistic. She wants “castles in the air,” but with Parry she seems like someone who would settle for the monetary equivalent.

Getting the characterization right is crucial because the plot revolves around this relationship. Solness is a successful but embittered architect and builder in a small Norwegian town. Afraid that the younger generation will replace him, he mercilessly dominates his employees. His marriage holds no love and his twin infant sons died years ago. Then Hilde arrives unannounced. A vivacious young woman, Hilde has idolized Solness for 10 years, since he built a large church in her hometown and, when it was completed, climbed to the top of the tower to place a wreath at its dedication. He had promised to return and build a “kingdom” for her and now that the 10 years are up she has come to collect.

Hilde’s illusions are understandable -- she’s young. Parry makes her too calculating. Solness is a man who has given up on illusions until Hilde’s spirit infects him, and his judgment. Naughton’s lifeless portrayal never captures that vulnerability.

This production of The Master Builder, which was commissioned by the Irish Rep, marks the world premiere of Irish playwright Frank McGuinness' adaptation of the 1892 classic, one of Ibsen’s last. McGuinness’s past adaptations of Ibsen's work by have received acclaim, including a Tony Award for Best Revival in 1997 for A Doll House.

Besides Naughton and Parry, the cast includes Letitia Lange, Kristin Griffith, Daniel Cameron Talbott, Herb Foster and Doug Stender. Performances continue to Nov. 30. The Irish Repertory Theatre is at 132 W. 22nd St. For more information, call (212) 727-2737 or visit

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