Comedy of the crowd-pleasing variety is making a comeback on our stages this season.
The Geffen Playhouse notched a hit with Matthew Lopez's "The Legend of Georgia McBride," a giggly romp about a straight Elvis impersonator who strikes gold after discovering a hidden talent for lip-syncing in drag. And now Amy Freed's "The Monster Builder," which opened last weekend at South Coast Repertory, is having a grand old time sending up the most insufferable trends and personalities in contemporary architecture.
Freed, no stranger to SCR, enjoys rummaging through the literary canon for comic material. In "The Beard of Avon," she farcically tackled the Shakespeare authorship question. In "Restoration Comedy," she recycled the genre's extravagant costumes and libidinous mischief. And in "The Psychic Life of Savages," she provided a sportive outing for a gaggle of famously strung-out confessional poets.
In "The Monster Builder," Freed puts Ibsen's "The Master Builder" in her humorous crosshairs. Taking a page from that master of outrageous parody Charles Ludlam, she infuses her loosely inspired update with a steady stream of madcap mockery. Imagine Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company without the cross-dressing ribaldry. That may sound tame, but I found myself tittering throughout "The Monster Builder," which finds ways of mainstreaming a once underground genre without spoiling all the naughty fun.
Tyrannizing over the action is Gregor, an egomaniacal starchitect played by the tirelessly amusing Danny Scheie, who never met a consonant he couldn't squeeze an onomatopoeic sound from. Donning a black turtleneck and owlish glasses of the kind favored by Le Corbusier and Philip Johnson, this self-preening global eminence lives, literally, in a glass house that offers neither privacy nor seating of any kind. (The parody scenic design that Thomas Buderwitz drolly comes up with doesn't pay Gregor any compliments.)
Gregor's trademark, monstrous geometrical abstractions that deface nature and alienate communities, turns out to reflect not simply his aesthetic sensibility but something malevolent in his soul. Indeed, the designs of this architect have a demonic quality. The mazes he devised for an Alzheimer's facility, for example, cruelly accelerate the condition.
Gregor's sadistic streak is revealed early on at a gathering at his home with a pair of idealistic young architects, Rita (Susannah Schulman Rogers) and her husband, Dieter (Aubrey Deeker), who are friends of his attractive but none-too-bright girlfriend, Tamsin (Annie Abrams). When Tamsin tries to clean up some salsa that Dieter spilled on the unsealed Carrara marble, Gregor goes ballistic. "What are you doing, you idiot!" he shouts, before mopping up the red mess with part of her outfit.
Rita unwisely lets Gregor know that she and Dieter are in the running to renovate the Van Eijk Boathouse, a historic site they want to lovingly restore. Ruthlessly competitive and eager to eradicate all vestiges of quaintness from the world, this self-described "visionary futurist" steals the project out from under them. Rubbing salt in the wounds, he then lecherously invites Rita to work for him — a test not only of her marriage but of her architectural ethics.
Freed throws caution to the wind in a comedy that leaps from cutthroat scheming to attempted murder to something resembling demonic possession. Gregor, who turns out to be considerably older than he appears, is no ordinary architect villain. (Without giving too much away, someone might want to investigate what's he doing with his defibrillator.) The revenge plot cooked up against him, a cockeyed conspiracy enlisting the aid of a wealthy couple (gamely played by Colette Kilroy and Gareth Williams) who have their own bone to pick with Gregor, ensures there's no letup in the lunacy.
The production, directed by Art Manke, manages to break with realism without completely severing ties to reality. Credit goes to the actors, who delight in flaunting the shortcomings of their characters even as they fall victim to Gregor's fiendish machinations. (In the moneyed world of contemporary architecture, no one can stay pristine.)
Schulman Rogers' Rita and Deeker's Dieter are recognizable types, stylish and ambitious professionals whose career frustrations make them prime targets for diabolic temptation. ("The Monster Builder" is, among other things, an architectural morality tale.) Watching this husband and wife torture themselves over compromises they can't believe they're making adds a nice abrasive touch to the comedy.
But just as he provided the chariot horsepower for Freed's "You, Nero" at SCR in 2009, Scheie supplies the maniacal force for "The Monster Builder." An unhinged aesthete with only contempt for the human beings who have to look at his pretentious monstrosities, Scheie's Gregor is an all-too plausible cartoon. Spouting academic jargon like an effete dictator while wreaking havoc with a fussy sneer, this architect from hell relishes nothing more than remaking the world in his own outlandish image.
The joke might be thin, but Freed, Manke and a clever cast are full of surprises. "The Monster Builder" isn't likely to make anyone's list of comedy classics but the laughter provoked by this entertainingly screwy play is welcome right now.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘The Monster Builder’
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; ends June 4
Info: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org
Running time: 2 hours
Follow me @charlesmcnulty