“I had a love/hate relationship with Mr. Ibsen for a long time,” admits director Andre Belgrader, while one of his actors, Wrenn Schmidt, adds, “The first time I read The Master Builder, there was nothing about that play that attracted me to it.” Though both eventually came around to the author and his work, the initial hesitancy about the material (one that I share, for I have never seen Ibsen work) seeps into the production. Despite several solid performances and gorgeous scenic design by Santo Loquasto—a simple revolving set with tilted, rectangular scaffolding in the center—The Master Builder plays like typical Ibsen: sterile, stilted, and emotionally anachronistic.
The play is allegedly a personal one: Halvard Solness (John Turturro) is the eponymous builder, whose office is staffed by an elderly architect he usurped (Julian Gamble) and a younger one who will eventually usurp him (Max Gordon Moore). Just as he fears that youth will come barging at his door, Hilde (Ms. Schmidt) appears, a young woman who he had kissed as a child ten years ago and whose life has been frozen ever since. Solness and his wife, Aline (Katherine Borowitz), lost both of their children very young but leave their nurseries untouched out of a morbid fascination with the past; “You are our child tonight,” Solness tells Hilde, and yet she plays a more complicated role. She is both infantilized and sexualized, a force of destruction and a force of liberation.
The Master Builder was written late in Ibsen’s life and Solness can easily be read as his alter ego. He fears that he can “will [his fantasies] into being,” just as a playwright may do with his pen, and he believes that the death of his children is responsible for his success—an author, in turn, must sacrifice and betray the ones he loves the most in order to write truthfully. For fear of God’s punishment, then, Solness does not tempt death by climbing the steeples of his finished buildings to attach a garland, as is the tradition; though the inevitable fall would provide him a Romantic death, one that would put him in the ranks of John Keats and Lord Byron.
But a Keats or a Byron Ibsen is not. The Master Builder lacks the forcefulness of those poets or the immediacy of any good autobiographical work, and the play is an endless, rather tedious discussion, vaguely realistic, vaguely symbolic, never cohesive. Mr. Turturro is fine, though he does not succeed as he did two years ago in The Cherry Orchard (also directed by Mr. Belgrader). Ms. Schmidt, while appropriately cast, is given a flimsy part; this is the kind of role men write for women in which their sole dramatic purpose is to assist the protagonist in completing his “character arc”—her motivations are either murky or nonexistent and therefore her actions unbelievable. Only Ms. Borowitz rises above the play. Her Katherine has a compelling, dreamy quality. She glides across the stage, soft-spoken but often funny, an unassuming wraith who stares past her costars as if she were blind. Katherine, then, becomes the emotional center of this Master Builder, the pain of her loss the only pain we distinctly feel.
Needless to say, Solness, encouraged by Hilde, does climb his steeple in the end and does fall to his death. Mr. Belgrader, unwisely tossing out Ibsen’s stage directions, decides to show us this fall: but Mr. Turturro, mostly obscured by the building, does not plummet from the top of the stage in what might have been a powerful moment. Instead, he whips what we can see of his body (really just his hands) out of view, hoping we will accept this as verisimilar. We do not, and the effect is much the same as the entire play: wholly underwhelming.