Life As an Urban-Planning Great Game in South Coast Rep’s The Monster Builder

In their own ways, writing a play or novel is a great deal like designing and building a structure—creating something tangible, either in physical or textual form, out of nothing but an idea. Maybe that’s why architecture and design have long inspired writers, from Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 The Master Builder and the execrable Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark in her 1943 novel The Fountainhead to British writer’s J.G. Ballard’s depressing 1975 novel High-Rise and Howard Korder’s 2010 play In a Garden. There is something about the confluence of ego, space, hubris and creating physical, temporal things out of abstract ideas—as well as the tolls those implemented ideas may exact on those who interact with them—that brings out the inner designer in many a writer.

Add Amy Freed’s The Monster Builder to the list. Taking its title from the aforementioned Ibsen play, but with ample doses of the Bauhaus movement, postmodernism and, of course, Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, her freewheeling, dark comedy features one of Freed’s most favored constructs: a larger-than-life, egomaniacal central character graced by brilliance and debased by his warped views on creativity and creating meaning through one’s actions.

Much like her perverse Roman emperor Nero in You, Nero and her 17th-century Salem witch-hunter Increase Mather in Safe In Hell, both of which were commissioned by South Coast Repertory, the character of Gregor (played in delicious over-the-top frenzy by Danny Scheie) is a riveting marvel of excess and amoral ambition. A world-renowned futuristic architect, Gregor is far less concerned with preserving historic structures than in demolishing them and erecting new ones that ironically comment on the originals. He also despises the people (a word he struggles to remember when talking) who live, work and visit his buildings. Driven by material success and an endless need to infuse his nihilistic, dystopian vision into everything he touches, Gregor—who claims to be in his 60s—is diametrically opposed to a young, aspiring duo of architects: Rita (Susannah Schulman Rogers) and Dieter (Aubrey Deeker).

The married couple are idealists who want to preserve historical buildings in order to hold onto a sense of beauty and space in increasingly depersonalized urban centers. They yearn for the days when common areas served as a third place (the name of their small firm), not ones restricted to solely residing or working in, but where people of all classes and ways of life could mingle, interact and live in the moment. Their opportunity is a small boathouse erected in the late 19th century in an unnamed major American city. Fallen into disrepair, the local planning commission is seeking design firms to do something with the building, which is championed by preservationists as a site of humble homage to a simpler, more humanistic way of integrating structures into communities and loathed by people like Gregor, who view it as a nostalgic relic that is a wart on the face of human progress.

That is the entry point into this story, which also includes Gregor’s gorgeous, if a bit braindead, girlfriend, Tamsin (Annie Abrams), and a wealthy couple, Pamela (Colette Kilroy) and Andy (Gareth Williams), who seek to hire Rita and Dieter for a remodel of their home. This is also where a third school of design pops up: a wholly commercial one that is unapologetic about building condo developments and malls that embrace European-style fountains and façades (think just about every development in South County).

While the boathouse is revisited through the course of the play, the structure that comes to dominate is a rather terrifying building in Dubai that Gregor is attempting to design. It’s his need for inspiration and execution of the design that turns this into an interesting battle of ideas over architectural aesthetics, a wildly soaring fantastic tale that, just as an addition to a museum that seems to explode out of the original structure (see Frank Gehry’s Art Gallery of Ontario, referenced in the program), catapults a seemingly straightforward play about conflicting design visions into a Faustian realm of supernatural and diabolical weirdness.

The play’s abrupt shift in tone (which is teased early on) might strike some as jarring, but director Art Manke’s production, ably complemented by Thomas Buderwitz’s set design, doesn’t let up when things start going south in a big way. The audience isn’t given much time to wonder what is really going on; it’s best to just hang on and enjoy the riotously funny, twisted track the play hurtles along.

Freed’s play is ultimately a contest between humanism and the virtue of collective community, as well as the increasingly technocratic, soulless, all-flash-and-no-real-heart that so much urban planning, from Orange County to downtown Los Angeles, is immersed in. It’s clear in Freed’s play whose side she champions; it’s also clear which side is currently winning. #thanksTrump.

The Monster Builder at South Coast Repertory, 650 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 8 p.m. Through June 4. $20-$64.

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