The title of Amy Freed’s The Monster Builder conjures up some classical allusions, certainly to Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder with its ego driven Solness, an architect who builds high and falls low, as well as, perhaps, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with another driven genius whose creation goes awry. The Monster Builder, however, is a rich, black comedy performed in high style by a superb cast under the sure hand of director Art Manke.
The play opens in the newly built residence of world-renowned architect, Gregor (the brilliant Danny Scheie), a foul-mouthed, aggressive, nasty piece of work who slanders others with a shark-like smile and dominates any space he happens to occupy. He gets away with it because others fawn on him, supposedly due to his talent, but mostly because he sucks up all the space in whatever room he happens to occupy. The house he built is a hideous conceit of glass and angles, which his guests, budding architects Rita (Susannah Schulman Rogers) and Dieter (Aubrey Deeker), praise as best they can. They are there in the uncomfortable main room of Gregor’s monstrosity because Rita attended Bard College with Gregor’s attractive, somewhat vacant wife, Tamsin (Annie Abrams), a woman quite a bit smarter than might be expected of one who speaks with Valley Girl overtones. Dieter sees Gregor for what he is, while Rita gets swept up in his fame and forcefulness. As the show builds momentum, it becomes clear that Gregor is evil incarnate.
The young architects are striving to start up their practice and have hopes of getting a contract to rehabilitate a decaying, classically built boathouse that they want to save from destruction. When Gregor gets word of their plans, he reveals himself to be a malicious conniver who not only plans to steal their project, but also shows a lascivious interest in Rita in the process. Meanwhile the highly principled Rita and Dieter have secured a first project to pay the bills. Taking a deep breath, they commit to renovating the home of a wealthy older couple, Pamela (Colette Kilroy) and Andy (Gareth Williams), who are way more interesting and vital than they appear at first glance. They are the kind of people who come through when the chips are down.
Ms. Freed includes multiple allusions to architects and architectural movements in the past, including the Bauhaus, Futurism, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Gehry, Wright, Palladio, and more, and most significantly perhaps, the Nazi architect, Albert Speer. The Monster Builder is a superb, smart script.
The show is self-consciously theatrical, performed in a crisp, heightened, declamatory style of speech, with movement to match. The production design supports the play with a scenic design by Thomas Buderwitz and lighting by Kent Dorsey that consists of three large, distinct sets that roll on and off in a few darkened seconds. The initial set, Gregor’s ego-driven horror, is white and all angles with nowhere that might be confortable to sit. A second set rolls on from stage left revealing Rita and Dieter’s studio, the polar opposite of Gregor’s creation. It is all warm wood, with frosted windows and an area rug on the floor. And finally, in a surprising departure in style, Gregor’s work place rolls in from stage right. It shows a room in a church complete with a stained glass window and a pump organ that Gregor plays with outrageous vigor, inevitably calling to mind The Phantom of the Opera.
The design and creative team also includes the fine work of Angela Balogh Calin, costume design; Rodolfo Ortega, original music and soundscape; Ken Merckx, fight choreographer; and Ursula Meyer, dialect coach.
The Monster Builder is terrifically entertaining, vigorously theatrical, and a rollicking good time. The show runs through June 4 at South Coast Rep’s Segerstrom Stage in Costa Mesa.