Review

On Theater: 'The Monster Builder' explores architecture and conflict at SCR

You don't necessarily have to be an architect to enjoy Amy Freed's new play “The Monster Builder,” now on stage at South Coast Repertory, but a working knowledge of the field certainly would assist in its appreciation.

Architecture pervades this production, which falls into the uncharted territory between comedy, drama and fantasy. Freed initiates vigorous thrusts in each of these directions as she examines conflicts in the field and the concepts to which her characters so passionately cling.

Not since Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal collided in Ayn Rand's “The Fountainhead” back in 1949 has the subject of architectural design been featured so prominently. And, while some of its dialogue might fall beyond the grasp of many playgoers, the sound and fury generated by its principals remains constant. This is due in large measure to the boldly imaginative direction of Art Manke.

The seeds of consternation are sown, innocently enough, at a party thrown by a legendary architect and his wife for two friends, a young married couple just getting their architectural feet wet. When the guru learns of a project his guests are pursuing – and swipes it for himself – the drama truly is set into motion.

The young architects – Rita and Dieter, played by Susannah Schulman Rogers and Aubrey Deeker – are the play's central characters, but the show is stolen, early and often, by the overbearing Gregor, a maniacal character lustily interpreted by Danny Scheie.

You won't have any trouble hearing Scheie, even in the back row of the theater. He utters every line at the top of his voice, even in normal conversation, and issues fierce pronouncements from on high, as if daring anyone to disagree with him. It's a robust performance that crackles with unquestioned authority.

Rita isn't buying it, however, and her attempts to infiltrate the master's world become the focus of the first act. In Act II, however, things get out of hand, and Freed's creations vacillate between sci-fi and farce, toying with the Faustian legend and suggesting historical improbability.

Rogers is excellent as the determined young architect, and Deeker contributes strongly as her spouse. Focus, however, gravitates toward the tall, lithe Annie Abrams, who plays Gregor's wife and utilizes her physicality quite creatively.

A third couple, Pamela and Andy, apparently represent the more down-to-earth element of the trade. Colette Kilroy excels as the knowledgeable side of the partnership, while Gareth Williams functions breezily as the cruder half, elevated by sudden wealth.

Thomas Buderwitz, one of SCR's primary scenic artists over many years, has come up with an eye-catching series of locations, including Gregor's white palace, whisked on and off stage with alacrity. The latter location appears, fully formed, from the empty stage that opens the show.

Angela Balogh Calin's attractive costumes and Kent Dorsey's dominant lighting patterns complete a most impressive technical picture. Particularly striking is Rodolfo Ortega’s classical sound design, which punctuates the scenic transitions.

Freed has created several of SCR's memorable moments – “Freedomland,” “The Beard (CQ) of Avon” and “Safe in Hell” among them. With “The Monster Builder,” she delves into an esoteric area, architecture, and illuminates it for her audiences in this compelling chronicle at South Coast Repertory.

IF YOU GO

What: “The Monster Builder”

Where: South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Nightly, except Mondays, at varying curtain times through June 4

Cost: Start at $22

Information: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

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