BWW Reviews: THE MONSTER-BUILDER Is a Devil of a Comedy at Artists Rep
One of the rules you learn as a young writer is that the beginning should set the tone for everything to follow. Whether you're working on an essay, a screenplay, a novel, or a stage script, you should give your audience a sense of what they're in for from the very beginning. A romantic comedy, for instance, shouldn't begin with a brutal, bloody murder. A serious historical drama shouldn't start off with a pie in the face. You get the idea.
Amy Freed's play The Monster-Builder, receiving its world premiere at Artists Rep, begins in a fancy, pretentious beach house. The architect, Gregor, is famous and rich, and he has designed the place for himself and his wife, Tamsin, to live in. They've invited Tamsin's college friend Rita and her husband, Dieter, to see the place. Rita and Dieter are aspiring architects themselves, and they tell their hosts about a small project they're hoping to work on--the restoration of a small historic boathouse. Gregor is a pretentious jerk, to say the least, while Tamsin is earthy and funny, while Rita and Dieter are likable and down-to-earth.
Gregor takes an interest in the boathouse project, and seems to see Rita as some kind of protege. That's as far as I'm going to go with the story, because this play goes in so many unexpected directions and changes tone so many times that I'm not sure I could explain it to you. Part of the fun is figuring out what's going to happen and where the whole thing is headed. It took me until intermission to figure things out, as Freed throws a big surprise at the audience right before the act break that tells us once and for all what we're watching.
The jarring tonal changes are uncomfortable, however, though director Art Manke and the cast do their best to keep up. Sometimes the play feels like a parody of itself, and sometimes the dialogue is so filled with pretentious banter that it's hard to keep up. (Gregor in particular is as chatty and self-involved as a Bond villain, which can be entertaining...to a point.)
Ultimately the show rests on the shoulders of the cast, who have to try to stay in character even as the story and tone are shifting all around them. Freed and Manke are lucky to have a solid crew to keep the audience involved. Michael Elich is all snobbery and self-promotion as Gregor, with his hipster glasses and goatee; he has a wonderful voice for the long monologues Freed has handed him. It's not his fault that the character grows tiresome by Act Two. Bhama Roget is funny and earthy as Tamsin, and Gavin Hoffman brings sincerity and intensity to Dieter. Allison Tigard tries to make Rita interesting, but she's mostly a plot device, there to be torn between Gregor and Dieter, and only at the end does she get to do something fun. Robin Goodrin Nordli and Don Alder add some comedy as clients of Rita and Dieter, both with terrible taste, funny but vital caricatures of the nouveau riche.
Credit also has to go to Tom Buderwitz's spectacular set, which welcomes us into the theater with what appears to be a giant aquarium and turns out to be the bedroom of Gregor's new house. The set morphs as necessary to accommodate the other locations in the script, but every time we come back to the house it's scarier than before. Likewise, composer/sound designer Rodolfo Ortega helps set the scenes and gives us an idea of where we are emotionally and tonally in each scene.
I'm new to Amy Freed's work; she's been acclaimed all over the place and seems to have quite a following. The Monster-Builder isn't a bad play. It just doesn't tell you where it's going. Some folks may find that entertaining. Me, I find it confusing. The actors salvaged the evening...but they shouldn't have to.