‘Master Builder’ Stumbles at Yale Rep
By David A. Rosenberg
When did Henrik Ibsen become Neil Simon? Judging from inappropriate but understandable audience yocks during act one at the performance caught, Yale Rep’s production of “The Master Builder” bid fair to become the proverbial laugh sensation of the season. Act two was a different matter as repetition soon devolved into tediousness.
Pretentiously directed by Evan Yionoulis and featuring a manic performance by David Chandler as master builder Halvard Solness, the garrulous play is about an artist’s struggle to reclaim his creativity before old age crushes him. Paul Walsh’s idiomatic translation doesn’t overcome the play’s lack of the kind of spine that makes Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” and “A Doll’s House” such masterpieces.
Like the rebellious women in those other works, “Builder” has Hilda Wangel, an idealistic young thing who goads the bitter architect that Solness has become. She wants him to climb, as he once climbed, to the top of a tower and, when he comes down, to begin work on a palace in the air for them. “Have you ever noticed,” he asks, “that what’s impossible calls out to us?”
It matters not to either Hilda or Solness that he’s married to Aline since that relationship has long soured, especially after the deaths of their infant twin boys. Weary, ironic, egotistical Solness has taken refuge in an affair with Kaja Fosli, who’s engaged to promising young architect Knut Brovik. Others in the mix are Brovik’s aging father, Ragnar, and Solness family friend, Dr. Herdal.
Solness has become so disillusioned before Hilda appears that he decides to no longer build churches. Feeling the hot breath of youth on his neck and quarreling with God, he lowers his sights into designing homes, even a new one for himself.
Which brings us to Timothy Brown’s topsy-turvy set, a flattened house rising to an upstage peak. Instead of doors, we have two windows flush with the stage floor, through one of which characters enter and exit up and down a flight of hidden stairs. Accompanied by Paul Whitaker’s lighting and Scott L. Nielsen’s sound design and music, the evening unsuccessfully strives for symbolic and mysterious effects that attempt to combine realism with dreams.
To make matters worse, styles of acting don’t mesh. Chandler’s twitchy performance takes its cue from lines about his being considered “a crazy man, an insane man.” Although the words are meant psychologically, here they’re all too literal. Said while clutching himself and practically tearing at his hair, Chandler’s Solness spouts, “There is nothing wrong with me!” Think Will Ferrell as an asylum inmate and you get the idea. As Hilda, Susan Heyward is all liveliness, while Bill Buell’s Dr. Herdal is all lechery.
For compensation, watch Felicity Jones who, as Aline Solness, gives the only believable performance, as she did in Yale’s “Lulu” some years back. Using minimal gestures, looking regal and cold in her severe black dress, she can flick an emotion with the most economical means. Her reading of a simple line like “Well yes, of course” is itself a lesson in character-building that accomplishes much more than anything else in this production.
This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Hour.