Whatever Irish playwright Frank McGuiness may have brought to the table with his controversial new English rendering of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House a decade ago, that invigoration is nowhere near his leaden adaptation of The Master Builder, having its US debut at the Irish Rep in Soho; but to be fair, as infelicitous as some of the stilted and academic-sounding constructions may sound, I do, truly, challenge anyone to make this play work sufficiently.
Its tortured hero, the so-called Master Builder because for lack of formal education, he cannot claim the title architect, is Halvad Solness (James Naughton), who has a rock-star reputation, yet a menopausal man’s fear of the encroaching new generation. He feels that his passion for art has caused him to sacrifice his own happiness and that of his wife Aline (Kristen Griffith), to say nothing of the lives of his long-dead infant twins…yet unlike Arthur Miller’s equally haunted industrialist Joe Keller, in All My Sons (also newly revived some twenty blocks uptown), he does not suffer from self-delusion, but rather overdoses on introspection and self-flagellation; nor does he have an equivalent guilty secret, only the dread that if he does not stand guard with vigilance, he will pay for his success. How? Who knows? His crisis is entirely existential!
The character who draws all this musing and speechifying out of him—who may even exist solely for the purpose—is a vivacious young woman, Kaja (Letitia Lange) who simply shows up on his doorstep, having met him once, ten years ago, when she was 12, at the site and celebration of one of his architectural triumphs, where he held her and kissed her (many times, says the play, the notion of child molestation creating not even a mild shadow in Ibsen’s vision) and bade her to visit him ten years hence. It is a goal for which she has (apparently) lived for the last decade and which she does now, realizes, prompting him to unburden his fears, prompting her in turn to embolden him, that he may release his fear of young talent and reach, figuratively and literally, for new heights.
It all makes for a stultifying evening of philosophical gobbledygook and watching Mr. Naughton palpably struggle with and sometimes stumble through long, flatulent speeches; the struggle and stumbling borne not of any lack of skill or preparedness, but rather the fact that the story is so slender and inconsequential to Ibsen’s thematic purpose that he’s flailing away for lack of emotional grounding. (Think about it: when’s the last time an actor made an impression upon you while playing a vague apprehension?) Miss Lange does better as his philosophical foil, but that’s because Kaja at least has a mission, and that allows the actress to motivate her speechifying with an active goal. The other actors are reduced to props in smaller, functional (or non-functional, as the case may be) roles. For the record, the director is Ciaran O’Reilly.