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picture - The Master BuilderTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published November 7, 2008


The Master Builder

now playing Off Broadway at the Irish Repertory Theatre

through November 30


Since the Irish Repertory Theatre focuses its many skills on all things Irish, you might wonder why they have undertaken the task of mounting a production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder. Norwegian gloom is not exactly their forte, and The Master Builder is not exactly Ibsen’s easiest play, but one supposes that the world premiere of an adaptation by Frank McGuinness, a wry Irish dramatist with a particular reputation for some heady translations of European masterpieces, is reason enough. It turns out, however, that it is not reason enough. The adaptation itself is rather routine and mundane, the language too often hysterical and pulpish. And, as a result, the play never reaches the tragic heights it clearly aspires to. It is never uninteresting, because Ibsen never created characters that weren’t fascinating in their complexity. And the hint of autobiography, the feeling that, late in his career, Ibsen was taking a long look at himself, makes the play’s digressions as provocative as its central theme is powerful.


Halvard Solness is an architect who has, in his climb to fame, stepped heavily on the potential careers of others (notably his Dickensian assistant, Knut Brovik, who is dying, and, currently, Brovik’s son), heaped misery on his faithful but socially exasperated wife and their fruitless marriage, and indulged not so innocently in his attraction to all those nubile wide-eyed young girls who have stood in infatuated thrall to his fame and stature. Into his life comes a young woman, the persuasively aggressive Hilde, who is returning to help him fulfill a promise he made to her, when she was twelve years old, to build for her – and as his lasting triumph – nothing less than “a kingdom.”


Solness is alternately arrogant, powerful, vulnerable, egocentric, charming, pompous, mature, childish and, sometimes, all of these things at one and the same time, which makes him, as one of dramatic literature’s most remarkable creations, a magnet to great actors, and, indeed, it takes a great actor and a towering presence to bring to life such a  set of emotional and intellectual contradictions. James Naughton is attractive and in possession of the requisite charm but he is simply not up to the task; for most of the evening, he seems to be struggling out of a vacuum he has gotten himself sucked into. When he is introspective, he lowers his voice; when he is passionate, he raises his voice. The voice itself is not suffused with too many colors. This is a man, not a giant. And, although Charlotte Perry has all the qualities necessary for a superb Hilde, too often she seems to be in aid of Naughton, picking up the pace when he slows it down, and, in tandem, in the play’s final scenes, they drown together rather than rise to the surface in grandeur. And, in the end, they merely fail; the depths of tragedy eludes them.


The beautiful Kristin Griffith, as Solness’s wife, brings both radiance and sad intelligence to her role, and Herb Foster, as the dying Brovik, says more in less time than many of the other cast members. It should be noted, too, that their finest moments exist, if one dares to say it, when Mr. Naughton is not around. In their scenes, Solness is their subject, not their object.


Eugene Lee’s recreation of the Solness workplace is a masterpiece of architectural design, but as the settings change, and the room gets shifted around and becomes background, it begins to look like so much debris piling up on the stage. Cioran O’Reilly’s staging adds to the clutter.


It is always good to see a production of a play as potentially thrilling as The Master Builder is and always has been, as long as you know that this is far from a definitive version you’re sitting through. It cries out for resonant language, meticulous direction, and a great Solness, none of which is provided by this Irish Rep staging.


harveyperr @


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